Court battle over UK govt’s climate action plan in full swing

The UK government has found itself locked in a court fight with climate groups for the second time in under two years over its net zero plans. This three-day hearing at the High Court represents another round of the government’s running battle with environmental activists over its strategy for tackling climate change.

Courtesy of Friends of the Earth

Following a previous legal challenge by three organizations – Friends of the Earth, ClientEarth, and Good Law Project – in July 2022, the UK government was ordered by the High Court to publish a revised strategy, as the judge underlined the critical expert role of the Climate Change Committee (CCC), stating its advice must be given “considerable weight.”

At the time, the High Court ruled that the net zero strategy, which was supposed to set out plans to decarbonize Britain’s economy, did not 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 would be met.

“We’re now in the crucial decade to stop irreversible damage from global heating, but our government still hasn’t produced a realistic plan to tackle the climate emergency. Last year, we teamed up with Friends of the Earth and ClientEarth, and went to the High Court to successfully force the government to rewrite its woefully inadequate net zero strategy. But the plan that ministers came back with – the Carbon Budget Delivery Plan – still isn’t up to scratch,” said Good Law Project.

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After going over the details of the Carbon Budget Delivery Plan with a fine-tooth comb, the lawyers from these three organizations claimed that the revised plan was also in breach of the Climate Change Act. As a result, they made up their minds to take the UK to court for the second time over – what they deemed to be – the government’s “feeble and inadequate” strategy for tackling climate change and “weak” net zero plans.

To this end, the trio filed papers at the High Court requesting a judicial review, as they were convinced that the UK failed to make amends. The three groups emphasized their unwillingness to let the government off the hook since they saw its decisions to greenlight new coal mines and oil fields as a danger to net zero aspirations.

“Alarm bells should be ringing across Whitehall. Having a serious plan to tackle the climate crisis cannot wait. And it’s not just our planet at stake, but also our economy, energy security and ability to compete on the global stage when it comes to developing green infrastructure and technologies. It’s vital that we can all see if the government’s flagship plan for tackling the climate emergency is actually going to work. So it is deeply alarming that the government’s new plan does not properly set out the risks of key policies missing these essential climate goals,” added Good Law Project.

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While confirming its return to the High Court, alongside Friends of the Earth and Good Law Project, as part of the action being taken against the UK government over climate action plans, ClientEarth underscored that it would argue during the three-day hearing that the government’s new strategy was still inadequate. On the first day of the joint hearing, government assessments, which are known as climate risk tables were released.

Sam Campbell, ClientEarth’s Supporter Engagement Team, outlined: “These assessments expose some of the government’s own warnings that its Carbon Budget Delivery Plan to reach net zero by 2050 is being put in jeopardy by delays, an overreliance on unproven technology, insecure funding and a lack of joined-up policy thinking. And alarmingly the government has watered down key climate policies and vowed to ‘max out’ North Sea gas and oil in the months since we launched our case.”

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While emphasizing that the UK needs to see real action on the climate front, Campbell underlines that the country is far off track to meet its emission reduction targets under the current plans. The new legal challenge comes after the CCC recently published a progress report, which has shaken confidence in the UK’s ability to reach its climate goals.

The report says there are only credible plans for less than a fifth of the emissions reductions needed to meet the UK’s legally binding climate targets, which is down from the previous assessment when just 39% of plans were fit for purpose.

“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, but the government has pinned its hope on unproven solutions – which is why we are pursuing legal action again,” noted Campbell.

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Previously, ClientEarth said that reliance in the revised plan was placed on emerging technologies such as hydrogencarbon capture and storage (CCS), and low-carbon aviation fuel, posing “inherent delivery risk, uncertainty and challenges,” though the precise extent of these risks and how they add up with other risks across the plans remained unclear.

This is not the only legal challenge the UK government needs to contend with, as its decision to greenlight a new oil and gas licensing round also sparked such action, with Greenpeace saying that the government failed to properly check the damage such a move would do to the climate. The group claims that the government ignored over 80% of the carbon emissions these licenses will produce when the oil and gas are burnt.

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