The UK’s Net Zero Strategy explains how the country will meet its legally binding goal of reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050, but campaigners say its lack of detail breaks the law
1 June 2022
By Adam Vaughan
Climate campaigners are taking the UK government to court over the country’s plans for reaching net-zero carbon emissions. They argue that the government has broken UK climate laws, in a trio of cases due to be heard at the High Court of Justice in London.
Launched last October, the Net Zero Strategy laid out a sweeping series of measures to meet the UK’s legally binding 2050 net-zero goal, including backing for a large nuclear power plant and a mandate on electric car sales. But the blueprint failed to offer any detail on how much individual measures within the plan would cut emissions, making independent scrutiny impossible.
The government holds a private spreadsheet of the emissions savings, which New Scientist has been battling to have released under freedom of information rules.
However, in parallel, Friends of the Earth, ClientEarth and the Good Law Project have been granted judicial reviews challenging the lawfulness of the strategy. The three cases are due to be heard together at the High Court on 8 and 9 June. The crux of their argument is that the 2008 Climate Change Act places a legal obligation on the government to unpack how it will meet its five-yearly carbon targets, known as carbon budgets.
“Our argument is that the government has not provided sufficient information or explanation of how this strategy is going to enable the upcoming carbon budgets to be met,” says Katie de Kauwe, a lawyer at Friends of the Earth. “It hasn’t quantified what impact each of the policies it sets out is actually going to achieve in terms of emissions reductions.”
She likens it to being in debt and merely promising to pay it off by cutting spending, rather than laying out numerical details of the money you plan to save. “How are we, parliament and the public supposed to be scrutinising whether this actually adds up or not, if you don’t provide the figures for it?” she says.
The government’s own projections show that, prior to the strategy, the country needed to reduce emissions by around an extra 151 million tonnes to be on track for its 2032 carbon target, the point at which carbon budgets end. The government says that the strategy puts the UK “on the path” to meeting its carbon targets, but doesn’t provide any bottom-up numbers for how much individual measures will reduce emissions.
De Kauwe expects the government’s lawyers to argue that UK business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng is sincere about combating climate change, but wishes to exercise his discretion in how officials go about it. The Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) was contacted for comment.
BEIS has previously rejected New Scientist’s freedom of information requests to have the spreadsheet with the emissions savings released, despite MPs calling for the government to reconsider its position. The UK data watchdog, the Information Commissioner’s Office, has considered a complaint about the decision eligible, but has yet to make a ruling.
If the government loses the judicial reviews being heard next week, it may have to release the figures underpinning its strategy. If they are found to be wanting, that could force the publication of a strengthened Net Zero Strategy, says de Kauwe, but this depends on the specific orders from the judge, which may not be decided for months.
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