ClientEarth lawyers, Sam Hunter Jones and Sophie Marjanac, outside the High Court on the first day of the hearing; Source: ClientEarth

New legal challenge yields same result: UK going back to the drawing board with net zero plan deemed ‘unlawful’

Another court battle over the UK government’s climate plans has crossed the finish line, with the court ruling against Britain’s net zero plan. This is the second win for climate groups in two years, which is expected to force the government’s hand in amending its decarbonization vision sooner than expected.

ClientEarth lawyers, Sam Hunter Jones and Sophie Marjanac, outside the High Court on the first day of the hearing; Source: ClientEarth

The fight over climate action in the UK is not a new development as it goes back over 15 years. Environmental organizations and groups can challenge the government in court over its net zero agenda thanks to the Climate Change Act, which sets legally binding targets for the UK to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The same three players – Friends of the Earth, ClientEarth, and Good Law Project – that brought forward the previous legal challenge resorted to taking the UK to court for the second time over what they described as the government’s “feeble and inadequate” strategy for tackling climate change and “weak” net zero plans.

In July 2022, the High Court ruled that the Net Zero Strategy, which was supposed outline 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.

As a result, the UK government was ordered to publish a revised strategy, with the judge underlining the critical expert role of the Climate Change Committee (CCC), stating its advice must be given “considerable weight.”

However, once the government came up with a new plan, the lawyers from Friends of the Earth, ClientEarth, and Good Law Project claimed that the revised one was also in breach of the Climate Change Act due to the decisions to greenlight new coal mines and oil fields with reliance placed on emerging technologies such as hydrogencarbon capture and storage (CCS), and low-carbon aviation fuel.

In light of this, they filed papers at the High Court requesting a judicial review, since they were convinced the country was far off track to meet its emission reduction targets under the revised plan, as hammered home by the CCC’s progress report that brought the UK’s ability to reach its climate goals into question, finding credible plans for less than a fifth of the emission cuts needed to meet the UK’s legally binding climate targets, down from the previous assessment when just 39% of plans were fit for purpose.

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Given the CCS’s report, the High Court’s decision on Friday, May 3, to rule against the government’s revised net zero plan, outlined in the Carbon Budget Delivery Plan after the Net Zero Strategy was found unlawful, does not come as a complete surprise.

Emma Dearnaley, Good Law Project’s Legal Director, underscored: “This welcome ruling shows that the law is our best – and often last – line of defence against a government that is failing to act as it must to address the climate emergency. And we will continue to use it to push for accountability and greater ambition.”

Good Law Project claims that the court has labeled the UK’s revised plan as “unlawful” for the second time in two years in a “landmark” ruling, which shows that the government will need to up its efforts to tackle the climate emergency.

Katrina McDonnell, Campaigns Manager at Good Law Project, explained on Friday: “We expect that later today the court will order the secretary of state, Claire Coutinho, to draw up a revised plan within 12 months – a plan which makes sure the UK meets its legally binding carbon budgets and its international pledge to cut emissions by at least 68% by 2030, both of which are currently off track.

“We are incredibly proud to have worked with Friends of the Earth and ClientEarth whose legal arguments secured today’s vital ruling. This builds on our earlier success, where we forced ministers to release risk tables they tried to keep under wraps. And it’s not hard to see why. Now parliament, experts, journalists and the public can see Tory policies on net zero are reckless and at a high risk of failure.”

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Good Law Project believes it is high time for the UK to set forth a climate plan that matches the seriousness of the climate crisis. It remains to be seen what Britain will come up with next, as the judge has also ordered the government to re-write the plan in the next 12 months.

“Our lawyers and campaigners will strive to make sure it delivers the UK’s climate targets. Including its pledge to cut emissions by over two-thirds by 2030,” vowed McDonnell while emphasizing that Good Law Project is convinced the court’s latest decision provides “a much stronger basis to demand effective climate action from this and the next government, whoever it is.”

This ruling, coming on the heels of the historic one from the European Court of Human Rights which found states must take “immediate” action to reach net zero, has been dubbed by Katie de Kauwe, Friends of the Earth Lawyer, as “another embarrassing defeat” for the government and its climate plans.

Sam Hunter Jones, Client Earth’s Senior Lawyer, stated: “The government cannot just cross its fingers and hope for unproven techno-fixes and uncertain policies to plug the huge gaps in its plans. No more pie in the sky – the government must now take real action.”