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Court again tells Government that net zero plan unacceptable

Deniz Huseyin
09 May 2024

The Government’s climate strategy is not fit for the purpose and must be revised within 12 months, the High Court has ruled. This is the second time the court has found current policies insufficient to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, making the Government in breach of the UK Climate Change Act.

Energy secretary, Claire Coutinho, is now required to draw up a new plan to ensure that the UK achieves its legally binding carbon budgets and its pledge to cut emissions by more than two-thirds by 2030.

The charities Friends of the Earth and ClientEarth and non-profit political company Good Law Project took joint legal action against the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero over its decision to approve the Carbon Budget Delivery Plan in March 2023.

Mr Justice Sheldon upheld four of the five grounds of the groups’ legal challenge, stating that the decision by the former Energy Security and Net Zero Secretary Grant Shapps was “simply not justified by the evidence”.

“If, as I have found, the secretary of state did make his decision on the assumption that each of the proposals and policies would be delivered in full, then the secretary of state’s decision was taken on the basis of a mistaken understanding of the true factual position,” Sheldon said.

He agreed with the environment groups that the assumption that all the department’s policies would achieve 100% of their intended emissions cuts was wrong. Shapps had acted irrationally and on the basis of an incorrect understanding of the facts, the judge said.

The Government’s Carbon Budget Delivery Plan aims to set out how it will meet both the UK’s target under international law to reduce emissions by 68% by 2030, as well as carbon budgets under domestic law which cap emissions in five-year periods towards the 2050 net zero target.

The environment groups have taken the Government to court twice via judicial reviews into its climate strategies, the Carbon Budget Delivery Plan?and the previous plan, the Net Zero Strategy. Each time, the groups argued that the plan did not comply with the?Climate Change Act 2008.

“Under the 2008 Act, the Secretary of State has a legal obligation to set out how the UK will meet carbon reduction targets. But neither of its climate plans have been up to scratch,” said Friends of the Earth. “Our first victory came in July 2022, with the judge ruling in our favour and ordering the Government to outline exactly how the policies in its climate plan would achieve carbon emissions targets.

“That plan’s assertions weren’t supported by the necessary information on how it would achieve the cuts required. There was no way for parliament or the public to know whether the Government was actually going to meet its legally binding targets. That meant the strategy wasn’t lawful.” 

The charity added: “The UK Government is now dangerously off track to meet its climate targets, including its pledge to cut emissions by over two-thirds by 2030. We urgently need a new credible plan that achieves our climate targets and shares the benefits of climate action fairly.”

Greg Marsden, Professor in Transport Governance at the Institute for Transport Studies at the University of Leeds, described the High Court decision as “hugely significant”.

He told LTT: “This ruling shows that, as yet, there is no robust cross government strategy to tackle emissions at a whole economy scale.

“I would argue that, as the largest sector of emissions, that statement will continue to be true unless the ambition for transport is higher.

“This would likely mean not planning for the kind of traffic growth futures we currently are and, therefore, having a different view of strategic need for infrastructure compared to other policies.”

Becca Lush form Transport Action Network said: "With transport's share of UK carbon emissions rising, road projects that increase emissions risk torpedoing our chances of meeting our national and international legal obligations on climate change.”

She told LTT: “As DfT is about to publish the draft version of the Road Investment Strategy (RIS3) for 2025-2030, surely its bloated roads programme is now dead on arrival with this High Court ruling? RIS3 is the DfT's chance to put its money where its mouth is and show it is serious about roads maintenance, rather than staying wedded to expensive, climate-busting, poor value-for-money road schemes"  

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