High Court to hear legal challenges to UK Government’s key net-zero policy packages
The High Court has confirmed that it will hear three legal challenges mounted against the UK Government’s Net Zero Strategy in a two-day hearing this week.
Three environmental campaign groups – Friends of the Earth, ClientEarth and Good Law Project – mounted separate legal challenges to the Strategy in January.
The crux of their argument is that the Strategy, first published last October in the run-up to COP26 in Glasgow, does not detail sufficient measures for delivering the legally binding emissions targets that the UK Government is committed to. As such, it may be in breach of the Climate Change Act, which was first set in 2008 and was updated in 2019 as the Conservative government enshrined the 2050 net-zero target in law.
Friends of the Earth released a statement reading: “The Net Zero Strategy does not quantify what effect its policies will have on reducing emissions, or the timescales in which these will happen, therefore it is not possible to know what impact it will have on meeting climate targets. This means that neither Parliament nor the public can hold the Government fully to account.”
The High Court has this week agreed to hear all three challenges at the same time. Hearings have been tabled at the Royal Courts of Justice in London today (8 June) and tomorrow (9 June).
Friends of the Earth lawyer Katie de Kauwe said: “We maintain that the government’s Net Zero Strategy is flawed, inadequate and unlawful.
“The Secretary of State is legally required to meet our upcoming carbon budgets. Warm words and a theoretical delivery pathway for making the necessary emission reductions are simply not good enough.”
de Kauwe appeared on edie’s ‘Sustainable Business Covered’ podcast in February, in a special episode exploring how the law can and should be used to deliver net-zero. This episode can be accessed here. It also features interviews with Lawyers for Net-Zero and the Chancery Lane Project.
The Government has not issued a public statement on the High Court’s decision yet. However, since the legal challenges were first mounted, spokespeople have maintained that the Net Zero Strategy – combined with the other key low-carbon policy packages published last year – is aligned with the UK’s legally binding long-term and medium-term climate commitments.
The Strategy notably contains no time-bound, sector-specific emissions reduction targets, as many experts had hoped it would. Concerns also persist that delivery on the ground has faced a string of challenges since 2019, including the pandemic, which have hampered the ability of local authorities and businesses to roll out low-carbon programmes.
Human rights focus
As well as the emissions impacts of the Net Zero Strategy, this week’s heading will also see the High Court considering how the Government’s obligations under the Climate Change Act should be interpreted in line with human rights legislation. This challenge has been filed by the Good Law project in partnership with long-time British climate activist Jo Wheatley.
The most recent set of reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) set out, in no uncertain terms, how the climate crisis is already impacting human rights. February’s report on ‘Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability’ was described by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres as “an atlas of human suffering”. It warns that half of the world’s population is already “highly vulnerable” and that, for these communities, an “unliveable future” is on the cards this century. This will have a major economic impact and fuel megatrends including mass migration, scientists are warning.
The UK is not at the frontline of physical climate change. Nonetheless, groups including Friends of the Earth have been highlighting academic research into how the effects of domestic environmental degradation are disproportionately affecting already marginalised communities. These communities are more likely to be impacted by poor air quality and lack access to nature, for example.
Friends of the Earth notably launched a separate legal challenge in January, over the UK Government’s Heat and Building Strategy. The group argued that the Government had acted unlawfully by not properly considering the Strategy’s impact on people with protected characteristics, as it is required to under the Equality Act 2010. The Strategy’s main inclusions are on transitioning domestic heating away from fossil fuels and improving the energy efficiency of domestic buildings, which will affect home life for the general public.
The Government conceded, outside of court in May, that it had not undertaken an equality impact assessment in developing the Heat and Buildings Strategy. An assessment has now been promised.
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