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High Court Finds UK’s Net-Zero Strategy ‘Unlawful’ for Second Time in Less Than 2 Years

The Secretary of State has 12 months to draw up a revised plan after the High Court ruled its current net-zero strategy is in breach of the Climate Change Act.

The UK High Court of Justice on Friday ruled that the country’s net-zero strategy is in breach of the law, in a fresh legal blow to the government’s efforts in tackling the climate crisis.

In July 2022, the High Court handed down a similar verdict after environmental groups Friends of the Earth, ClientEarth, and the Good Law Project accused the UK of legally failing to include clear guidelines and policies to deliver its emission reduction promises. The Court ordered the Secretary of State to update its net-zero emissions strategy by the end of March 2023.

Following its publication, the same groups filed three new legal challenges, which were heard together by the High Court of Justice earlier this year. The groups argued that the UK’s revised strategy to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 was yet again in breach of the 2008 Climate Change Act.

In Friday’s ruling, Mr Justice Clive Sheldon said the decision of former energy security and net zero secretary to approve the Carbon Budget Delivery Plan (CBDP) in March 2023 “was taken on the basis of a mistaken understanding of the true factual position,” and was “simply not justified by the evidence.”

Under the country’s Climate Change Act, the Secretary of State is required to adopt plans and proposals that will enable upcoming, legally binding carbon budgets – a cap on the amount of greenhouse gases emitted in the UK over a five-year period – to be delivered.

Once again, the Secretary of State was given 12 months to draw up a revised plan, ensuring that the UK achieves its legally binding carbon budgets and its pledge to cut emissions by over 68% by 2030 relative to 1990 levels.

Gates of the Royal Courts of Justice in the UK

The Royal Courts of Justice, which houses the High Court and Court of Appeal of England and Wales. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Friends of the Earth lawyer Katie de Kauwe described the ruling as yet “another embarrassing defeat for the government and its reckless and inadequate climate plans.”

“We’ve all been badly let down by a government that’s failed, not once but twice, to deliver a climate plan that ensures both our legally binding national targets and our international commitment to cut emissions by over two thirds by 2030 are met,” she said.

“No more pie in the sky,” said ClientEarth senior lawyer Sam Hunter Jones. “This judgement means the government must now take credible action to address the climate crisis with a plan that can actually be trusted to deliver and with numbers that can be relied on.”

Besides the net-zero strategy, the UK’s climate adaptation plan also repeatedly came under scrutiny. The national Climate Change Committee first warned in early 2023 that the country was “strikingly unprepared” and had “little time left” to protect its people and ecosystems. This March, the Committee found that the newly revised plan once again “falls short of what is needed” to prevent an adequate response to far-reaching climate risks.

2023 was the world’s warmest and the UK’s second-warmest year on record, with mean temperature in the country standing at 9.97C, just below the 2022 figure of 10.03C but ahead of the now third-warmest year, 2014, which saw an average temperature of 9.88C.

Eight months last year were warmer than average – with June marking the hottest June ever recorded in the country “by a wide margin,” according to the Met Office, the UK’s national weather service. And the trend is continuing. February 2024 was the warmest February on record for England and Wales and the fourth-wettest for the country.

“The evidence of the damage from climate change has never been clearer, but the UK’s current approach to adaptation is not working,” said Julia King, also known as Baroness Brown of Cambridge, chair of the adaptation committee.

Featured image: Photo: Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona/Unsplash.

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