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ClientEarth Communications

25th October 2023

Climate accountability

We're taking the UK Government back to court over its climate plan

On 18 July 2022, as the UK sweltered in record temperatures, the High Court ruled in our favour against the Government’s inadequate net zero strategy, concluding that it breaches the Climate Change Act, and needs to be strengthened.

But a year on, the Government produced a revised climate plan that still fell far short of the credible plan required by the law. So in February 2024 we're going back to court, alongside our partners Friends of the Earth and Good Law Project.

What's the latest?

Following our hearing in 2022, the Government was ordered by the High Court to publish a revised Net Zero strategy. In March 2023 they did just that. But we still didn't think it met the minimum legal standards. The new plan relies on high-risk and unproven technologies to tackle climate change, as well as vague and uncertain proposals. This approach doesn't stand up to the basic requirements of the Climate Change Act, which is why we brought a judicial review of the plans in June 2023.

So alongside our partners Friends of the Earth and Good Law Project, in February 2024 we're going back to court against the Government.

Our CEO, Laura Clarke, said at the time we launched the claim, “The Government’s new plan to reduce emissions is not fit for purpose. It relies heavily on unproven and high-risk technological fixes at the expense of near-term action – yet the government ‘assumes’ that it will be delivered in full, despite these stark risks."

The UK needs to see real action on the climate. But instead we see hesitation and delay from the Government with the UK far off track to meet its emission reduction targets under the current plans. Measures like making homes more energy efficient and investing in public transport can both reduce emissions and increase energy security for present and future generations. As the UK's expert adviser, the Climate Change Committee, have repeatedly pointed out, there are many such measures that the Government can look at to strengthen its plans. This is why we’re pursuing legal action again – to demand real action and hold the Government to account when it comes to protecting people and nature.

What's our argument for the new legal action?

After the successful hearing in 2022, the High Court ruled that the Government’s Net Zero Stategy was in breach of the Climate Change Act, and ordered the Government to revise it. A new strategy – the ‘Carbon Budget Delivery Plan’ –  was delivered in March 2023.

However, we think the revised strategy is inadequate, and fails to meet core requirements of the Climate Change Act. We believe: 

The Government’s own independent advisor on climate, the Climate Change Committee, found in June 2023 that there are now only credible plans for less than a fifth of the emissions cuts needed to meet the UK’s Sixth Carbon Budget, which starts in 2033.

The UK Government continues to rely on pie-in-the-sky measures to address a crisis that needs real, immediate action – an approach the UK’s flagship law the Climate Change Act was designed to prevent. Instead of plugging the gaps identified by their own expert advisors, ministers are standing behind a strategy riddled with policy holes and reliance on risky techno-fixes. This approach flies in the face of key legal requirements and puts the UK well off track from meeting its legally binding commitments, which is why we’re back in court.

Sam Hunter Jones, ClientEarth lawyer

What was our original argument?

In January 2022 we submitted a landmark climate case to the High Court. After it was granted permission to proceed in March 2022, we teamed up with Friends of the Earth and Good Law Project for a full hearing in the High Court where our claims were heard together.

During the hearing, we argued that the Government had failed to show that its policies will reduce emissions sufficiently to meet its legally binding carbon budgets - targets which limit the total amount of greenhouse gases that the UK can emit over five year periods on the road to net zero.

We also argued that the net zero strategy failed to include enough information about the policies and their expected effects to allow Parliament and the public to properly scrutinise its plans.

We said that these failings meant the UK Government had breached its legal duties under the 2008 Climate Change Act.

Get updates on this case

ClientEarth lawyers Sam Hunter-Jones and Sophie Marjanac outside the High Court on the first day of the hearing
ClientEarth lawyers Sam Hunter Jones and Sophie Marjanac outside the High Court on the first day of the hearing
What happened in the 2023 hearing?

An important revelation from the hearing was that the UK Government had excluded significant detail from the net zero strategy that would allow Parliament and the public to properly assess the plans.

It was discovered during the court case  that the Government’s plans only added up to 95% of the reductions needed to meet the sixth carbon budget, but this information was not included in the net zero strategy. And, critically, the reliability of this figure as a realistic estimate was in doubt.

We were surprised with the extent of critical information revealed in court, when it should have been available to the public from the outset. The fact that it has only seen the light of day because of our lawsuit reveals a concerning lack of transparency.

Sophie Marjanac, ClientEarth lawyer

What did the 2023 ruling say?

The High Court found that the net zero strategy, which set out plans to decarbonise the economy, didn’t meet the Government’s obligations under the Climate Change Act to produce detailed climate policies, that show how the UK’s legally-binding carbon budgets will actually be met. 

It also found that parliament and the public were not told about a shortfall in meeting a key target to cut emissions. Behind-the-scenes calculations by civil servants to determine the impact of emissions cuts from policies in the government’s net zero strategy did not add up to the reductions necessary to meet the sixth carbon budget, which is the volume of greenhouse gases the UK can emit during the period 2033-37.

The ruling stated that Greg Hands, the Minister for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, who was responsible for signing off the strategy, didn’t have the legally required information on how carbon budgets would be met when he did so.

So what did the Government have to do?

Once we had received a ruling in our favour, the UK Government had eight months to update its climate strategy to include a quantified account of how its policies will actually achieve climate targets. These would have to be based on a realistic assessment of what it actually expects them to deliver. The updated strategy would have to be presented to parliament for scrutiny by MPs.

The new plan should include sound policies that stand up to the scrutiny of the Climate Change Committee (CCC).

This decision is a breakthrough moment in the fight against climate delay and inaction. It forces the Government to put in place climate plans that will actually address the crisis. It’s also an opportunity to move further and faster away from the expensive fossil fuels that are adding to the crippling cost of living crisis people are facing

Sam Hunter Jones, ClientEarth lawyer

In October 2022, the UK government announced that it would not be pursuing an appeal of the High Court’s ruling.

Why did we decide to take action in the first place?

On releasing the net zero strategy in October 2021, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the Government had centred its plans on the principle of “leaving the environment in a better state for the next generation” and releasing them of the financial burden of adapting to a warming planet.

However, the Government's latest published forecasts at the time showed the UK’s projected emissions in 2033-2037 being more than double the levels the Government is legally required to adhere to.

The Government was also relying heavily on unproven technologies, whilst overlooking viable current solutions that would have immediate impact, including solutions recommended by the CCC.

In addition to this, the Government’s failure to deliver real climate action was resulting in higher bills for people. Soaring energy bills for many UK households is, in part, because of the over-reliance on fossil fuels for heating and poor levels of insulation across the country. Yet the plans to roll-out low carbon heating and home insulation were well below the levels advised by the CCC.

Because we succeeded in this case, the Government was obliged to strengthen its Net Zero Strategy, and actually show how its plans will deliver the emissions cuts it is legally bound to achieve, cuts that are critical to keeping a just and liveable world within reach.

What are carbon budgets?

The Climate Change Act of 2008 legally binds the Government to carbon budgets that set limits on the UK's greenhouse gas emissions during five-year periods. They include a target to be over three quarters of the way to net zero in the next 13 years. ‘Net zero’ means that the amount of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK is equal to or lower than the amount of greenhouse gases removed from the atmosphere in the UK. The UK has also committed internationally to reduce its emissions by at least 68% by 2030 from 1990 levels, as part of its ‘Nationally Determined Contribution’ (NDC) under the Paris Agreement.

Missing these targets would have severe consequences for the public’s future health and prosperity. To avoid this risk, the Government has to show that its policies are sufficient to meet them. Our legal actions intend to make that happen.

More of our cases