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ClientEarth and Friends of The Earth are both taking legal action against the UK government over its failure to deliver an effective net-zero climate strategy that will enact real, meaningful change.
Campaign group Friends of The Earth and environmental law charity ClientEarth are filing separate court papers. The two argue that the government’s strategy is “pie-in-the-sky” and also contravenes the Human Rights Act (HRA).
With the latest IPCC report signalling it’s “code red for humanity,” and COP26 ending with a ‘compromise’ deal on the climate, the creation of lacklustre climate policy and pledges is part of a concerning trend of governments failing to take warnings seriously and step into “emergency mode.”
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) sixth report forecasts irreversible global warming within the next two years, with global temperatures likely to rise 1.5 degrees Celsius. Last year, nearly a quarter of the world’s population experienced record high temperatures, and 2021 was also the sixth hottest year ever recorded. On top of this, research from NOAA found that 2021 recorded the highest concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in 4 million years. The annual World Economic Forum (WEF) survey also recently revealed that climate action failure, extreme weather, and biodiversity loss are the three risks experts are most worried about, overtaking Covid-19. Against this backdrop, the UK government’s Net Zero Strategy “Build Back Greener” is a paltry attempt at tackling the crisis.
The strategy, released in October, outlines a number of commitments ranging from transport and power to industry and heat and building. This includes £620 million to be put towards grants for electric vehicles and the expansion of charging points, as well as £350 million earmarked for electric car production. With regards to energy, the plan says by 2035, the UK will be powered entirely by clean electricity, which will be achieved through a new £120 million Future Nuclear Enabling Fund, further investment in offshore wind, and research into using hydrogen fuel from natural gas for heavy industry. Heat and building plans set the ambition that by 2035, no new gas boilers will be sold, also detailed was a new £450 million three-year Boiler Upgrade Scheme and a “Heat Pump Ready programme.” Meanwhile, for Green House Gas removals, the government has allocated £100 million in innovation funding for Direct Air Carbon Capture and Storage (DACCS) and other GGRs, and has also said it will explore options for regulatory oversight to provide “robust monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) of GGRs.” BECCS also featured heavily throughout the document.
Boris Johnson referred to the strategy as “taking bold action” and one that “sets an example for other countries”, with the UK leading “the charge towards global net zero.” Yet, experts and climate campaigners alike argued that it lacks ambition and isn’t supported with adequate funding.
Numerous critics have hit out at the strategy, saying that it simply does not go far enough. Kevin Anderson, a professor of energy and climate change at the University of Manchester, commented that the strategy “falls far short” of both the Paris and G7 temperature and equity commitments. Adding: “Scour the associated spreadsheets, and the numbers reveal a story of subterfuge, delusion, offsetting and piecemeal policies – all dressed up as a shiny new strategy for Cop26.”
Meanwhile, Rebecca Newsom, the head of politics at Greenpeace UK, liked the strategy to “pick and mix” rather than the “substantial meal” needed to reach net-zero. Newsom said the document is full of “half-hearted” policies and funding commitments and outlined that the investment in tree planting and “progress on electric vehicles” is in place of concrete plans to deliver renewables “at scale,” provide extra investment for public transport, or, importantly a “firm commitment to end new oil and gas licences.” Further to this, she pointed out that it failed to state the need to reduce meat and dairy consumption significantly.
Others have raised concerns about the government’s reliance on BECCS, the green credentials of which have been put under the microscope many times, with many questioning its sustainability. Sasha Stashwick, a senior advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council and campaigner with Cut Carbon Not Forests, asserted that this reliance on biomass electricity “wastes billpayer-funded subsidies on a false climate solution.” Adding: “Just like fossil fuels, burning trees in power stations exacerbates climate change, threatens wildlife, and emits dangerous air pollution.”
Further to these criticisms, experts have noted that unlike previous strategies, such as the 2020 10-point green plan and 2017 clean growth strategy, the government’s Net-Zero Strategy fails to detail how each of its policies will cut emissions and reach its goals. Moreover, when presented with a freedom of information (FOI) request by the New Scientist, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) refused to publish the spreadsheet which, according to them, contains this information, but claims there’s nothing “secretive” about their actions. Ed Matthew at climate change think tank E3G disagrees and has called the withholding of the document an act of “secrecy and subterfuge.” Likewise, John Sauven from Greenpeace UK likened ministers to a “shady dealer” asking customers to “buy a product without seeing it first.”
While there are many vocal critics of the government’s proposals, ClientEarth and Friends of The Earth have taken their criticisms one step further, both filing individual legal cases against the government.
The basis of ClientEarth’s legal argument is that the government’s failure to set out “credible” policies for tackling climate change is ultimately unlawful and breaks its legal obligations, as per sections 13 and 14 of the Climate Change Act 2008.
They also both argue that global warming will disproportionately impact young people’s right to life and to family, thus contravening the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR).
FoTE also claims that the government’s Heat and Buildings Strategy fails to consider its impact on legally protected groups under the Equality Act 2010, following its 2021 findings that people of colour are twice as likely to be living in fuel poverty as white people.
Speaking about the legal action, ClientEarth Senior Lawyer Sam Hunter Jones said: “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. The Government claims that those producing pollution should bear the cost of managing it. But its pie-in-the-sky approach to net zero pushes that risk onto young people and future generations who stand to be hit hardest by the climate crisis.
Adding: “Energy bills are currently soaring, in part because of the UK’s over-reliance on fossil gas for heating and poor levels of insulation. Government failure to deliver real climate action is resulting in higher bills for people.”
Katie de Kauwe, a lawyer at Friends of the Earth, called the government’s strategy an “imaginary pathway for reducing carbon emissions but no credible plan to deliver it.” Further to this, she outlined: “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.”
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