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January 12, 2022

UK Government faces climate lawsuit over net-zero strategy

Climate groups allege that slow decarbonisation violates citizens’ human right to life.

By Matthew Farmer

Climate action groups have filed a lawsuit against the UK Government, claiming its decarbonisation plans do not sufficiently protect future life.

Court papers filed by Friends of the Earth (FotE) and ClientEarth aim to force the government to accelerate its decarbonisation plans. In October 2021, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government outlined policies to achieve net zero by 2050, with the constituent country of Scotland aiming for 2045. These include bans on non-electric vehicles from 2030, bans on gas boiler sales beyond 2035, and increased funding for renewables and nuclear.

In a statement, a spokesperson for FotE said that the UK Government’s climate strategy “woefully inadequate”. The group alleges that the government policy does not comply with its own strategy, and relies too greatly on undiscovered technologies. It also believes that the Heat and Buildings Strategy document, released alongside the net-zero strategy, disproportionately disadvantages vulnerable people.

Rowan Smith, solicitor at legal firm Leigh Day, outlined the legal case on behalf of FotE: “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.”

The group’s lawyer in the case, Katie de Kauwe, 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.”

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ClientEarth’s lawyer Sam Hunter Jones said: “A net-zero strategy needs to include real-world policies that ensure it succeeds. Anything less is a breach of the government’s legal duties and amounts to greenwashing and climate delay.”

Following the publication of the UK’s net-zero strategy, the independent Climate Change Committee said it makes a “big step forward” while entirely neglecting some areas. The UK’s net-zero policy is one of few enshrined in law, aiming to fully decarbonise by the Paris Agreement-compliant year of 2050. Climate Action Tracker group rates the UK’s policy as “almost sufficient”, with the lack of relevant financing presenting the biggest issue.

The case follows a similar UK lawsuit to block the expansion of the nation’s largest airport, Heathrow. After initial victories, a Supreme Court ruling in December 2020 decided that this did not sufficiently violate the right to life. It also resembles European court cases contrasting slow net-zero policies with human rights protecting life. In the Netherlands, these cases won a notable victory against oil giant Shell, causing the company to advance its net-zero strategy.

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