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UK Government Sued Over Climate Policy

Updated: Mar 28, 2022

Euan Cook reports on why the UK Government has been sued over their Net-Zero Strategy and how those in poverty will be affected by a neglect of climate pledges.

Photo by Klim Musalimov

Friends of the Earth (FE) and ClientEarth (CE) have announced that they are suing the UK Government, filing papers for a Judicial Review at the High Court over the government’s “inadequate” Net-Zero Strategy.

The UK Government has failed to set out sufficient policies to tackle climate change and reach net-zero emissions by 2050. The desired strategy would enact policies ensuring that, by mid-century, the volume of emissions released by the UK as a whole is equal to the volume of emissions removed from the atmosphere. It is clear, however, that the UK will not meet these specific targets that were published in preparation for the COP26 conference in Glasgow.

The UK Government’s Promises

To begin, it’s important to summarise what the economic and environmental stakes are for the UK due to the climate crisis. Economic damages could exceed £1 billion per year by 2050 with a temperature rise of 2°C, including the cost of climate change in the UK rising to at least 1% of GDP by 2045. Last year, the government committed to a series of adaption projects, including:

However, FE and CE argue that the UK Government has breached its legal duties to the 2008 Climate Change Act and the ‘Nationally Determined Contribution’ legislation under the Paris Agreement, which is a commitment to reduce emissions by at least 68% from 1990 carbon levels by 2030. Sam Hunter Jones, the senior lawyer for CE, argues that:

“It’s not enough for the UK Government simply to have a net-zero strategy, it needs to include real-world policies that ensure it succeeds. Anything less is a breach of its legal duties and amounts to greenwashing and climate delay” - Sam Hunter Jones, ClientEarth

While the Paris Agreement target commits the UK to be over three-quarters of the way to net-zero in the next 13 years, the UK’s projected emissions for 2037 are more than double the government’s legally-binding carbon budgets. According to CE, this is due to the UK Government relying on “unproven technologies whilst overlooking viable solutions” that would have an immediate impact.

An Unaddressed Social Inequality

Policy recommendations put forward by CE to improve the Net-Zero Strategy include a push to improve home energy efficiency and stricter targets for aviation, agriculture emissions, and sustainable transport.

Notably, the FE and CE disapprove of the Heat and Buildings Strategy’s reckless disregard of the UK’s most vulnerable communities: acknowledgment which is legally required under the Equality Act 2010. The Strategy simply doesn’t consider the detrimental effect climate change will have on these groups.

Research shows that more than three million people live in fuel poverty across England. Factors such as age, sex, and race, can make individuals more vulnerable to climate change. Typically those with a low income, poorly insulated homes, a disability, or people of colour (who are twice as likely to be living in fuel poverty as white people) are most affected. These social, ethnic, and economic groups of people are certainly over-represented in the UK’s cohort of fuel-poor homes. FE argues that this unaddressed inequality from the UK Government requires “transparency and political accountability”.

Despite this, the Heat and Buildings Strategy pledges £3.9 billion to scale up energy efficiency after MPs and Treasury staff fought over how to phase out gas boilers in England. Yet Katie de Kauwe, a lawyer for FE, believes this funding isn’t enough to achieve the UK’s net-zero target.

“With characteristic sleight of hand, the government has set out an imaginary pathway for reducing carbon emissions but no credible plan to deliver it. 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” – Katie de Kauwe, Friends of the Earth

A Failure in Leadership?

Unless the policies agreed on in Glasgow are turned into physical action very soon, global heating will perpetuate with disastrous consequences. The UK Government is arguably drowning in policies to meet “costly” net-zero emission targets. Instead of blaming geopolitics and global gas markets, “green taxes” have been weaponised as a scapegoat for the UK Government’s passivity on climate change action.

While Boris Johnson previously boasted that Britain will “lead the world” on climate action and create “the greatest opportunity for jobs and prosperity since the industrial revolution”, quite the opposite is happening. In fact, the same stupor that the Conservative party has used during the trivial “partygate” scandal has led to a neglect of their own climate pledges.

Indeed, Johnson’s loss of authority and desire to appease colleagues have led to not only half-truths about climate action but has also led to a reality where the status quo in the UK is cheaper than climate action itself.


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