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Friends of the Earth wins High Court fight to make government redraft plans to keep UK on track to meet Net Zero

The government must again redraft its strategy to keep the UK on track to meet Net Zero after Friends of the Earth won a High Court ruling that the current plans are unlawful.

Posted on 03 May 2024

In a judgment handed down today, Friday 3 May 2024, Energy Secretary Claire Coutinho has been ordered to lay a new report before Parliament within the next 12 months.

Two years ago, the High Court found that the government’s first attempt at creating a Net Zero Strategy was unlawful after a challenge by Friends of the Earth, Client Earth and the Good Law Project and ordered it to revise its plans. The government did so by publishing the Carbon Budget Delivery Plan in March 2023.

Friends of the Earth challenged the revised plan, saying the decision to adopt it was unlawful because the Secretary of State proceeded on the assumption that the reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases from all of the proposals and policies would be delivered in full.

Today Mr Justice Sheldon ruled that the Secretary of State breached her duties under the Climate Change Act in making the revised plan. He found the Secretary of State proceeded on a mistaken understanding of the true factual position and his decision that the proposals and policies would enable the carbon budget to be met was simply not justified by the evidence.

He said the Energy Secretary had failed to consider the true deliverability of the plan, because the government was not provided with, and so failed to take into account, key materials on the risk to the delivery of individuals and policies and proposals set out in the Carbon Budget Delivery Plan. Had the Secretary of State been provided with this information, he would have seen that not all of the proposals and policies would be delivered. Indeed, the information before the court showed that nearly half of the policies relied on were not likely to be delivered.

The Secretary of State’s conclusion that the proposals and policies described in the CBDP would enable the carbon budgets to be met was irrational. 

The Court also found that the government failed to conclude that those proposals and policies, taken as a whole, would contribute to sustainable development. 

Friends of the Earth is represented by Leigh Day solicitor Rowan Smith with solicitor Julia Eriksen.

The court challenge was brought alongside Client Earth and Good Law Project.

The legal challenges to the Energy Secretary’s bid to lay out a means to keep the UK on track to meet Net Zero followed the setting of the Sixth Carbon Budget. In accordance with section 14 of the Climate Change Act, the first plan, the Net Zero Strategy, was put before Parliament in October 2021. FoE, Client Earth and GLP all brought claims for judicial review at the same time as the Climate Change Committee reported to Parliament that there were credible policies in place to meet just 39 per cent of emissions reductions needed to meet the budget.

The High Court ruled that Net Zero Strategy (NZS) had been unlawfully adopted because the Secretary of State did not take into account information he was obliged to consider to satisfy himself that the proposals and policies in NZS would meet the carbon budget. Following the NZS decision.

In March 2023 the Energy Secretary presented a revised Carbon Budget Delivery Plan to Parliament, less than a week after he was given a draft. The revised plan has now been found to be unlawful.

In June 2023 the Climate Change Committee said there were credible policies in place for less than 20 per cent of the reductions needed to meet Carbon Budget Six.

Friends of the Earth lawyer, Katie de Kauwe, said:

“This is another embarrassing defeat for the government and its reckless and inadequate climate plans.

“It shows the strength of the Climate Change Act – brought into force after a successful campaign led by Friends of the Earth and the backing of an overwhelming majority of MPs – to hold the government of the day to account for meeting its legal requirements to cut emissions.

“We’ve all been badly let down by a government that’s failed, not once but twice, to deliver a climate plan that ensures both our legally binding national targets and our international commitment to cut emissions by over two thirds by 2030 are met.

“Cutting emissions isn’t only essential to avert the worst of climate breakdown, it will create long term jobs in green industries of the future, boost energy security, bring down our bills and end our reliance on costly fossil fuels.

"We urgently need a credible and lawful new action plan that puts our climate goals back on track and ensures we all benefit from a fair transition to a sustainable future. Meeting our domestic and international carbon reduction targets must be a top priority for whichever party wins the next general election.”

Rowan Smith said:

“Today the Court has found, for the second time, that the Government has breached its duties under the Climate Change Act and failed to have in place policies that will achieve the UK’s carbon targets. These duties are vital legal safeguards to ensure that the UK will take the necessary action to cut carbon emissions and reach Net Zero by 2050.

“It is difficult to overstate the significance of this legal victory, both in terms of the precedent it will set form climate change litigation in the UK and internationally, but also in respect of the Court once again upholding our client’s complaint that the Government is falling short of its legal obligations to protect its citizens from climate catastrophe.”

Rowan Smith
Climate change Environment Human rights Judicial review Planning Wildlife

Rowan Smith

Rowan Smith is a senior associate solicitor in the human rights department.

Julia Eriksen
Climate change Environment Human rights Planning

Julia Eriksen

Julia is an associate solicitor in the human rights team

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