Separate law suits filed by ClientEarth and Friends of the Earth allege the government’s flagship Net Zero Strategy focuses too heavily on unproven future technologies and could breach carbon budgets

The UK government is being sued over its Net Zero Strategy, amidst allegations it threatens the wellbeing of future generations because it lacks “sufficient and credible policies” to enable the UK to meet its near-term, legally-binding decarbonisation goals.

Environmental law charity ClientEarth announced this morning it was taking the government to court over the “inadequate” strategy, arguing the roadmap suffers from several policy gaps, relies too heavily on speculative and unproven technologies, and ignores a number of proven solutions that could deliver much needed short-term emissions cuts.

It claims the whole-economy decarbonisation plan that was published last autumn does not meet the requirements of the 2008 Climate Change Act, which demands that “as far as possible” legislation must be compatible with rights protected under the European Convention of Human Rights. ClientEarth is set to argue that breaches of future carbon budgets would increase climate instability and threaten young people’s right to life, to family, and to private life, which are key protections under the Human Rights Act.

“It’s not enough for the UK government simply to have a net zero strategy, it needs to include real-world policies that ensure it succeeds,” said ClientEarth senior lawyer Sam Hunter Jones. “Anything less is a breach of its legal duties and amounts to greenwashing and climate delay.

“The government claims that those producing pollution should bear the cost of managing it. But its pie-in-the-sky approach to net zero pushes that risk onto young people and future generations who stand to be hit hardest by the climate crisis.”

Environmental NGO Friends of the Earth has also separately filed papers today in the High Court challenging the government’s Net Zero Strategy and alleging that it has breached the Climate Change Act.

The group is also challenging the Heat and Buildings Strategy, which was also published last autumn after repeated delays, arguing that Ministers failed to adequately assess the impacts of the strategy on protected groups, such as disabled people and the elderly.

The government published its Net Zero Strategy last October, setting out how it planned to rapidly stimulate markets for various technologies that can decarbonise the economy, while gradually eliminating the use of fossil fuel vehicles, heating, and power over the coming decades. It claims the combined measures in the flagship report will set the UK firmly on a pathway to delivering on both its Sixth Carbon Budget emissions target for the 2030s and its long-term net zero emissions goal for 2050.

Environmental campaigners and green business groups broadly welcomed many aspects of the plan, but they were also quick to point out the plan focuses heavily on bringing down the cost of clean technologies and does not take aim at reducing demand for high carbon activities, such as flying and eating dairy and meat. Moreover, the lack of detailed modelling included in the report to back up decarbonisation predictions prompted some to question the credibility of the government’s headline claim that it would put the UK on track to meet its climate goals.

Today, ClientEarth warned the ‘baseline’ predictions set out in the Net Zero Strategy suggest the UK’s emissions between 2033 and 2037 could be more than double the level the government has agreed to meet under its Sixth Carbon Budget.

Hunter Jones argued the strategy suffered from “huge gaps” in policy when it came to buildings, aviation, sustainable transport, climate-friendly food and farming, and recycling and reuse.

“The UK is kicking the can down the road by failing to set out real budget-compliant policies and betting the public’s future health and prosperity on long-shot technologies unlikely to deliver necessary emissions cuts,” he said. “While the government should of course invest and encourage innovation, the early-stage solutions featured in the strategy can’t make up for the lack of credible near-term action.”

A spokesperson from the government said it would not comment on ongoing legal proceedings, but pointed out its independent climate advisers, the Climate Change Committee (CCC), had delivered a broadly positive assessment of the Net Zero Strategy when it was published last autumn.

“The UK has cut emissions faster than any other G7 country over the past few decades, and our Net Zero Strategy has been described by the independent Climate Change Committee as ‘an ambitious and comprehensive strategy that marks a significant step forward for UK climate policy’,” the spokesperson said.

“The Net Zero Strategy sets out specific, detailed measures we will take to transition to a low carbon economy, including helping businesses and consumers to move to clean and more secure, home-grown power, supporting hundreds of thousands of well-paid jobs and leveraging up to £90nm of private investment by 2030.”

Reacting to the news on Twitter, energy policy expert and former senior civil servant Tim Lord warned the legal challenges would have an impact on government teams working to deliver on the decarbonisation agenda.

“Worth remembering that while legal challenge is an important part of the armoury for those wanting further action on net zero, it has an opportunity cost – the people in government who should be thinking about policy will now have to focus on defending a legal case,” he wrote.

Lord, who is now the senior fellow for net zero at the Tony Blair Institute, stressed the bar for success for both cases would be high, and speculated the government should be able to mount a “pretty strong defense”.

“HMG’s defence likely to be that (a) many policies are market led so hard to attribute precise savings to them (b) 15 years is a long time, so unreasonable to expect precise quantified plans by sector (c) plan should flex as costs change,” he said. “They could also argue that the fact the Act says “policies *and proposals*” recognises that in some areas plans will be less developed / more flexible.”

Interesting story this morning on UK climate policy: Friends of the Earth and ClientEarth seeking Judicial Review of the government’s net zero strategy – arguing that it doesn’t meet the requirements of the Climate Change Act. (1/x)

— Tim Lord (@timbolord) January 12, 2022

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