UK government given eight months to turn around ‘unlawful’ net-zero strategy

High Court ruled current strategy breaches the Climate Change Act


Christine Dawson

The UK government must revise its net-zero strategy because it is currently unlawful, the High Court has ruled.

According to the court, the strategy breaches the Climate Change Act (CCA) because it does not sufficiently show how key emissions reductions targets will be met.

The case was brought against the government by ClientEarth, Friends of the Earth, Good Law Project and environmental campaigner Jo Wheatley.

The ruling, published on Monday, also stated there is a shortfall in emission reductions from the strategy that was not disclosed to parliament or the public.

Civil servants, the court found, had calculated policies in the strategy were not adequate to meet the sixth carbon budget – or how much greenhouse gas the UK can emit from 2033 to 2037.

Although judge Justice Holgate found the shortfall itself did not breach the CCA he did state the minister for business, energy and industrial strategy, Greg Hands, who was responsible for signing off the net-zero strategy, failed to do so properly.

Hands signed off the strategy despite it lacking the legally required information on how carbon budgets would be met, the court ruled.

See also: – Asset managers’ net-zero targets not showing real-world impact

Justice Holgate stated in the case summary there had been inadequate information passed on to parliament about how the strategy would work: “The court rejects the defendant’s submissions that essentially a section 14 report, such as the net-zero strategy, need only tell parliament what the defendant’s policies are and need not provide any explanation or quantification of the effects of those policies for meeting the numerical targets.

“On a proper interpretation of the legislation those matters must be covered in a section 14 report.”

The UK government now has eight months to update its climate strategy. It must include a quantified account of how policies within it will achieve climate targets. A revised strategy will then be scrutinised by MPs in parliament.

Net zero in practice

James Alexander, CEO of the UK Sustainable Investment and Finance Association and member of the ESG Clarity Committee, said: “In light of this week’s High Court decision on the UK’s ‘net-zero strategy, we hope to see far greater clarity from government in the coming months on how its strategy can be delivered in practice.

“This includes certainty over the decarbonisation pathways for a number of sectors in the economy, from heat and buildings to food and agriculture, and harder to abate sectors, along with detailed policy frameworks for various industries that can help our economy reach net zero.”

Alexander also commented how important it is for investors and businesses to see leadership on this issue from government and to feel confident net zero is the direction of travel for the economy.

Sam Hunter Jones, senior lawyer at ClientEarth, said: “This decision is a breakthrough moment in the fight against climate delay and inaction. It forces the government to put in place climate plans that will actually address the crisis.

“The court has emphasised that the risks to delivery of the UK’s climate targets are ‘all- important’ – the government must now address those risks when it prepares a revised strategy that meets the requirements of the CCA.”

Hunter Jones called the ruling a chance to move “further and faster” away from fossil fuels which he said are expensive and adding to “the crippling cost of living crisis people are facing”.

Margin of error

Elaina Bailes, commercial litigation lawyer from UK law firm Stewarts, commented that the ruling could end up damaging compliance with climate goals in the long-run because the court allowed the government a margin of error in reaching net zero.

“That is potentially significant for companies devising their own net-zero strategies, and claimants trying to challenge them.

Using the example of a company being reliant on new technologies to achieve 20% of its carbon reduction target, Bailes questioned if it would be a problem if the company accepted a level of uncertainty around if those technologies will deliver, by extension causing uncertainty over meeting 100% of its target.

“This judgment suggests perhaps not. It will be interesting to see whether companies will attempt to use similar arguments when defending litigation attacking their own climate change policies,” she said.

Latest Stories