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We can take legal action to force the government to act on climate targets

The government is acting unlawfully if their policies don't go far enough to protect the planet. Mike Childs from Friends of the Earth explains how they, alongside other campaign groups. took the government to court over its climate inaction – and won

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Rishi Sunak and Grant Shapps visit the UK Atomic Energy Authority, Abingdon, Oxfordshire, March 30, 2023. Image: Jacob King - WPA Pool/Getty Images

With a fanfare of publicity, the Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero, Grant Shapps, unveiled the government’s revised strategy for tackling climate change on March 30. The raft of policies and thousands of pages of documents set out government plans to meet UK climate targets. However, the revised plan was something the government was forced to develop after the High Court ruled that the previous one was unlawful in July 2022.  

Around the world, the law is increasingly being used to ensure that governments and companies keep their legal obligations to protect the planet. In this instance, the successful legal challenges were brought by Friends of the Earth, ClientEarth and Good Law Project, and made possible by the Climate Change Act (2008).

Under this ground-breaking piece of legislation, the government has a legal requirement to ensure that UK greenhouse gas emissions are cut to net zero by 2050. To make sure this is achieved, the Act also requires ministers to set a series of legally-binding ‘carbon budgets’. Carbon budgets set out the amount of carbon the UK is allowed to emit in a five-year period, and these act as a series of stepping-stones to ensure that the 2050 target is actually met.  

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Last year’s legal challenge centred on the Sixth Carbon Budget, covering the period 2033-37, and ended with the High Court declaring that Greg Hands – then the Minister for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, who was responsible for signing off the strategy – had acted unlawfully as he didn’t have the legally required information on how this carbon budget, and the others running up to it, would be met. During the court proceedings, it emerged that calculations by civil servants on the quantified impact of the policies in the government’s strategy showed there was a five per cent shortfall in achieving the emissions reductions necessary to meet the Sixth Carbon Budget.  

This five per cent shortfall was not insignificant: it amounted to around 75 million tonnes of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) and was almost equal to the total annual emissions from all car travel in the UK. Indeed, this figure may well have been an underestimate as there were serious question marks about the robustness of the assumptions made on the policy effectiveness used for the calculation. Furthermore, the government’s own expert advisors stated in June 2022 that credible plans existed for only two fifths of the emissions reductions needed to meet the Sixth Carbon Budget. 

These targets matter. Last month, the world’s leading climate scientists issued a stark climate warning, with UN secretary general António Guterres calling for climate efforts to be massively fast-tracked “by every country and every sector and on every timeframe. Our world needs climate action on all fronts: everything, everywhere, all at once.”

Friends of the Earth is proud to have led the campaign for the Climate Change Act, the world’s first national law to require cuts in greenhouse gas emissions and making the government accountable for achieving them. And we’re proud to have been one of the first organisations to have successfully taken legal action under it. We showed it has teeth and can be used to hold governments to account on meeting climate targets.  

It remains to be seen if the revised plan is an improvement on the previous one. It’s got more information than the previous one on what the government thinks its policies will actually achieve. However, solutions such as insulating the nation’s heat-leaking homes and developing the nation’s on-shore wind resources appear seriously lacking. Will it be enough to meet the government’s legal obligations?  

Our lawyers will now be poring over the details of the government’s latest strategy and are poised to act again if this one falls short too.  

Mike Childs is Head of Policy at Friends of the Earth

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