UK government’s climate action plan is unlawful, High Court rules

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The UK’s latest strategy for meeting its legally binding targets on reaching net zero emissions is unlawful, the High Court ruled on Friday, in a fresh legal blow to the government and its efforts to address climate change.

Mr Justice Clive Sheldon upheld four out of five grounds for legal challenge after campaign groups brought a judicial review of Britain’s most recent climate plan, published in March last year.

The plan sets out the UK’s strategy for cutting greenhouse gas emissions to net zero in order to achieve its own legally binding commitments to curb global warming. In 2019, Britain became the first big economy to enshrine such a target in law.

Campaign groups ClientEarth, Friends of the Earth, and Good Law Project had argued that the government’s revised strategy was unlawful because it provided too little information on the government’s assessment of the risk of policies not being delivered. They filed three separate claims heard together by the court.

The groups also raised concerns about the reliance on technologies such as carbon capture and storage, which is expensive and has yet to be proven at scale anywhere.  

Later on Friday the High Court ordered the government to produce a new plan with its climate policies and proposals for cutting emissions in the next 12 months, and to pay costs for two of the campaigning groups.

“No more pie in the sky — this judgment means the government must now take credible action to address the climate crisis with a plan that can actually be trusted to deliver,” said Sam Hunter-Jones, senior lawyer at ClientEarth.

In response to the ruling, the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero said the UK could be “hugely proud of its record on climate change” and that “the judgment contains no criticism of the detailed plans we have in place”.

Sheldon’s ruling came after the High Court found in a landmark judgment in July 2022 that the government’s previous policy on tackling greenhouse gas emissions was unlawful, because it provided insufficient detail on how the target would be met in line with the country’s Climate Act.

Three years ago, the UK hosted the UN’s global climate conference in Glasgow and then prime minister Boris Johnson said that tackling climate change would be the country’s “number one” priority on the international stage.

But current prime minister Rishi Sunak last year rolled back a series of green plans including the phaseout of gas boilers and new petrol and diesel cars. He has also drawn up legislation encouraging more oil and gas drilling in the North Sea. 

After Sunak’s announcement last year, the Climate Change Committee, the UK’s climate watchdog, said it had “low confidence” that Britain would meet its net zero targets.

Chris Stark, former head of the CCC, told the Financial Times this month that Sunak’s rollback was part of the reason why Britain was losing out on green investment to other countries.

Climate activists protest outside Bute House, residence of Scotland’s first minister, last month
Activists outside Bute House, the official residence of Scotland’s first minister, last month © Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Ed Miliband, Labour’s shadow net zero secretary, said Friday’s ruling was “a new low even for this clown show of a government”.

“Their plan has now been found unlawful twice — once might have been dismissed as carelessness, twice shows they are incapable of delivering for this country,” he added.  

Farmers in the UK have struggled with unprecedented rain this year, leaving agricultural land flooded. Warmer temperatures globally during 2023 — the hottest year on record — have led to more evaporation from seas and lakes and wetter conditions in some parts of the world. 

Scotland last month ditched its statutory goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 75 per cent by 2030 from 1990 levels, which went beyond the rest of the UK’s target to cut emissions by 68 per cent by 2030 from 1990 levels.

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