UK Government threatened with fresh legal action over net-zero backtracking

Environmental lawyers will take further legal action against the UK Government if it cannot detail how changes to green policies announced by Rishi Sunak this week align with its binding climate commitments.

UK Government threatened with fresh legal action over net-zero backtracking

The Good Law Project has sent a letter to Energy and Net-Zero Secretary Claire Coutinho warning that its lawyers will either expand their existing legal challenge, or launch a fresh court case, without “urgent disclosure” of the carbon projections of Sunak’s changes.

It wants to see the forecasted impacts of Sunak’s moves to weaken policies relating to electric vehicle (EV) manufacturing, low-carbon heating and building energy efficiency by the end of Thursday 28 September.

In a speech earlier this week, Sunak confirmed that his Government will push back the ban on new petrol and diesel car and van sales from 2030 to 2035.

He also delayed a requirement for homes with oil boilers to replace them with cleaner options from 2026 to 2035 and stated that 80% of homes with gas boilers will need to transition by 2035, down from 100%.

Additionally announced was a weakening on energy efficiency requirements for new and existing homes, intended originally to support the Government’s vision for all British homes to meet Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) grade ‘C’ or higher by 2035.

Sunak said he remained committed to net-zero by 2050 and did not believe that the changes would undermine the delivery of this long-term goal, nor any interim carbon budgets.

The Good Law Project wants to see the figures supporting this claim. Its letter to Coutinho notes that the Climate Change Committee (CCC) has already expressed doubt that the changes are aligned with future carbon budgets.

The Committee had called for stronger policymaking in the near term and cautioned against weakening or delaying in its most recent annual progress report to Parliament, which concluded that, as of May, the Government only had credible policies in place to deliver 25% of the emissions reductions required through to 2050. Policy was deemed particularly lacking in relation to heating decarbonisation and domestic energy efficiency.

Sunak’s line of argument is that market forces will solve the issue and that his Party’s role should not involve forcing members of the public to make changes to their homes or transport habits – particularly if these changes come with a higher upfront cost.

The Good Law Project’s legal director Emma Dearnaley said:“We are not at all convinced by Rishi Sunak’s bold claim that his Government can backslide on key climate policies and still be on track to meet upcoming carbon budgets.

“Our letter is a warning that we are prepared to take further legal action if Ministers refuse to show their working behind the Prime Minister’s assertion that the Government will still meet its net-zero commitments”.

Existing legal challenge

Alongside Friends of the Earth and ClientEarth, the Good Law Project is already taking the UK Government to court over its belief that its net-zero strategies are not sufficient to deliver its legally binding decarbonisation commitments.

The High Court will hear the three groups’ case at a date to be announced. The hearing will concern a package of policy measures announced in March 2023, including the revised net-zero strategy and Carbon Budget Delivery Plan (CBDP).

This package was launched after the Government’s previous net-zero strategy package was deemed unlawful by the High Court, as it did not contain information on how every key sector would be supported to decarbonise in line with binding carbon targets.

Friends of the Earth Lawyer Katie de Kauwe said the three groups have a “strong” case once more.

Depending on Coutinho’s response to the new letter, the Good Law Project may choose to amend and expand the existing legal case or open a new challenge.

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