Smart Transport

UK government facing legal challenge over climate change policies

The UK government is facing a legal challenge from Friends of the Earth and Client Earth over what they claim is a failure to tackle climate change.

Both are arguing that the Government has failed to set out sufficient policies in its Net Zero Strategy to reach net zero emissions by 2050, breaching its legal duties under the 2008 Climate Change Act.

Friends of the Earth also says that the Heat and Buildings Strategy, published at the same time as the Net Zero Strategy, did not consider impact on legally protected groups under the Equality Act.

Sam Hunter-Jones, senior Client Earth lawyer, said: “On releasing the net zero strategy in October 2021, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the Government had centred its plans on the principle of ‘leaving the environment in a better state for the next generation’ and releasing them of the financial burden of adapting to a warming planet.

“However, its own baseline forecasts show that the UK’s projected emissions in 2037 will be more than double the levels the Government is legally required to adhere to.”

Hunter-Jones says the Government is also relying heavily on “unproven technologies” while overlooking viable current solutions that would have immediate impact, including solutions recommended by its own advisors, the Climate Change Committee.

Friends of the Earth claims the pathways to reach net zero in the Net Zero Strategy are theoretical, because they are not supported by Government policy which shows how they can be fulfilled.

It argues that this means the Net Zero Strategy is not lawful, and crucially, does not allow parliament and members of the public to hold government accountable for any failures.

Friends of the Earth also claims that the Government failed to consider the impact of its Heat and Buildings Strategy on protected groups.

Factors such as age (both the elderly and the very young who will live with the greatest future climate impacts), sex, race, and disability can make people more vulnerable to climate impacts. This unaddressed inequality needs transparency and political accountability, it argues.

A refusal so far to disclose its equality impact assessment for the Net Zero Strategy has raised similar concerns, it says.

Katie de Kauwe, lawyer at Friends of the Earth, said: “A rapid and fair transition to a safer future requires a plan that shows how much greenhouse gas reduction the chosen policies will achieve, and by when. That the plan for achieving net zero is published without this information in it is very worrying, and we believe is unlawful.

“We know that those who do least to cause climate breakdown are too often the hardest hit. Climate action must be based on reversing these inequalities, by designing the transition with the most vulnerable in mind.

“Not even considering the implications of the Heat and Building Strategy on groups such as older and disabled people, and people of colour and ethnic minorities is quite shocking, given these groups are disproportionately impacted by fuel poverty, for example.”

She added: “The bottom line is that the Government’s vision for net zero doesn’t match the lacklustre policy that is supposed to make it possible.

“We are very concerned at the potential consequences of such a strategy for people in this country, and across the world, given the climate emergency. This is why we are taking this legal action today.”

Following filing of the claims with the High Court, the Government will submit its defence, and the Court will then decide whether to grant permission for a full hearing.

Rowan Smith, solicitor at Leigh Day, said: “Under the Climate Change Act 2008, the Secretary of State has a legal obligation to set out how the UK will actually meet carbon reduction targets.

“Friends of the Earth considers that the Net Zero Strategy lacks the vital information to give effect to that duty, and so any conclusion, that targets will be achieved on the basis of the policies put forward, is unlawful.

“Friends of the Earth is concerned that this places future generations at a particular disadvantage, because current mistakes are harder to rectify the closer we get to 2050. That is why this legal challenge is so important.”

UK climate risk assesment

The Government published the UK’s Third Climate Change Risk Assessment earlier this week, recognising the unprecedented challenge of ensuring the UK is resilient to climate change.

The five-year assessment, delivered under the Climate Change Act 2008 and following close work with the Climate Change Committee (CCC), identifies the risks that climate change poses.

For eight individual risks, economic damages could exceed £1 billion per year each by 2050 with a temperature rise of 2°C, with the cost of climate change to the UK rising to at least 1% of GDP by 2045.

The report comes three months after the UK hosted the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, bringing together nearly 200 countries to limit temperature rise and keep 1.5 alive.

Climate adaptation minister Jo Churchill said: “The scale and severity of the challenge posed by climate change means we cannot tackle it overnight, and although we’ve made good progress in recent years there is clearly much more that we need to do.

“By recognising the further progress that needs to be made, we’re committing to significantly increasing our efforts and setting a path towards the third National Adaptation Programme which will set ambitious and robust policies to make sure we are resilient to climate change into the future.”

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