UK Supreme Court has “changed the game” on climate decisions – ClientEarth

20 June 2024

The UK’s Supreme Court today ruled that authorities must consider downstream greenhouse gas emissions when weighing planning approval, in a case fighting the construction of a new oil well in Surrey.

ClientEarth lawyers say that the judgment “changes the game” for Scope 3 emissions – those that are created by use of a company’s products.

Currently, these ‘downstream’ emissions are not required to be considered in planning decisions across the UK.

But the judge who drafted the majority opinion, Lord Leggatt, said that it was clear that oil from the wells would be burned, making the resulting greenhouse emissions “straightforwardly results of the project” – and that they should be considered in planning approvals.

ClientEarth lawyer Sophie Marjanac said: “This ruling adopts a sensible approach to the law governing environmental impact assessment, and aligns the UK with international law and practice. This clear decision from the UK Supreme Court changes the game for planning decisions: it irons out expectations, making it clear that companies and authorities have to account for downstream emissions – those that don’t come directly out of on-site operations, but are a guaranteed result of oil extraction.”

Earlier this year, an international legal tribunal, ITLOS, confirmed in an Advisory Opinion that states everywhere should be considering cumulative and indirect impacts in Environmental Impact Assessment decisions for new industrial and construction projects – and applying a “stringent” standard to their decisions.

Today’s decision follows a similar decision of the Norwegian Courts in January, and is in line with EU law.

Marjanac said: “We are finally reaching a tipping point where countries and companies are going to have to comprehensively account for the impact of every fossil fuel project on the climate – and use that information to start to prevent it.

“This news has implications for ongoing UK challenges – including the proposed Cumbria coalmine, Rosebank oil and gas exploration, North Sea oil and gas licensing and others. Meanwhile, we are making similar arguments in other cases in the EU.

“The UK is notoriously not on track to meet its climate targets, and campaigners at all levels are hard at work to fight for a future that we can all live in. This judgment is a legal triumph and we congratulate everybody who worked towards it.”


Notes to editors:
  • In its Advisory Opinion, the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) concluded that the UN Convention on the Law Of The Sea (UNCLOS) requires States to conduct an environmental impact assessment for “any planned activity, either public or private, that may cause substantial pollution to the marine environment or significant or harmful changes thereto through anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, including cumulative effects”.  [Para 367.]

  • Norway’s judgment noted that “around 95 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from petroleum production are mostly from combustion abroad after export.”

About ClientEarth

ClientEarth is a non-profit organisation that uses the law to create systemic change that protects the Earth for – and with – its inhabitants. We are tackling climate change, protecting nature and stopping pollution, with partners and citizens around the globe. We hold industry and governments to account, and defend everyone’s right to a healthy world. From our offices in Europe, Asia and the USA we shape, implement and enforce the law, to build a future for our planet in which people and nature can thrive together.