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July 27, 2022updated 02 Aug 2022 11:03am

Where the UK went wrong with its Net Zero Strategy

The High Court has ruled that the UK government’s “world-leading” Net Zero Strategy is unlawful. We explain what went wrong…

By Polly Bindman

Net Zero Strategy
Bleak outlook: the UK government’s Net Zero Strategy was deemed unlawful by a senior UK court in June. (Photo by George Clerk via iStock)
  • In a crushing blow to the UK government policy on climate change, a senior court has found the UK’s Net Zero Strategy to be unlawful.
  • The government failed to quantify the impact of its net-zero policies, accounting for only 95% of the emissions reductions it is legally required to meet.
  • Experts say the next UK prime minister must force through policies that tackle the climate, cost-of-living and energy crises simultaneously.

It is somewhat ironic that the same week in which Boris Johnson delivered his final Prime Minister’s Questions, the UK’s Net Zero Strategy – pitched as one of his big achievements – was found to be unlawful by the High Court of Justice.

The court ruled the UK government did not sufficiently quantify the impacts of its decarbonisation policies legally required under the Climate Change Act 2008 (CCA). The judgement came hours before wildfires spread across parts of the UK, thanks to record-breaking temperatures induced by climate change.

The successful legal challenge was launched in February by Friends of the Earth, environmental charity Client Earth, campaign organisation the Good Law Project, and environmental campaigner Jo Wheatly. Together, the claimants proved the government’s Net Zero Strategy, unveiled last October, was in breach of the CCA.

The High Court found the claimants successful on two grounds.

First, the government was forced to admit that the policies in its strategy only accounted for 95% of the emissions reductions it is legally required to meet between 2033 and 2037. This left a 5% shortfall, around 80 million tonnes of carbon dioxide – similar to the total annual emissions from all UK car travel in 2019. The court said the government had breached Section 13 for failing to consider which policies would make up that shortfall.

The court also found that under Section 14 of the act, the government failed to adequately quantify the impact, or emissions cuts, that the policies would bring about. Instead, the strategy relied on estimates, and potential emissions reductions, for the majority of policies.

It remains unclear as to whether or not the government had ever made the necessary calculations. As Tony Bosworth, campaigner at Friends of the Earth, tells Capital Monitor, a number of actors including journalists and climate groups have been trying to extract this information from the government with no luck.

A political football

As Conservative MPs Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, both with historically poor voting records on climate change, face off in the race to become Britain’s next prime minister, the landmark ruling represents a significant moment in the government’s progress towards net zero.

Sahil Kher, public litigator for the Good Law Project, tells Capital Monitor that while the claimants never really doubted that the next prime minister would scrap the UK’s net-zero ambition altogether, they were concerned that whoever is next in power would introduce policies that would undermine the target and “kick the football further down the line”.

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While the claimants were not successful on all grounds, the judge in the case, Justice David Holgate, ordered the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to produce a new and detailed plan for net zero by April of next year.

Kher says this is the first time the High Court has “acknowledged that climate change is a global problem that needs action now… The fact that the department now has eight months to fix its flagship strategy is a really powerful statement from the court”.

Kher adds that while the court has refused to hear a government appeal on the decision, the government could still go to the Court of Appeal, though this is thought unlikely.

Net Zero Strategy doesn’t add up

In 2019, the UK became the first major economy to enshrine its net-zero target in law. The government has long since positioned itself as a leader on carbon emission reduction. As part of a legal requirement under the CCA, the government has set carbon budgets since 2008, as well as putting forward a series of programmes, policies and proposals to ensure those budgets are met.

The latest, and arguably most significant policy, was its Net Zero Strategy, launched in the run-up to Cop26. At the time of its publication, experts flagged the lack of crucial information – namely, quantitative assessments of the impact of government plans and policies.

The Climate Change Committee (CCC), an independent body established under the CCA, warned that the government was “failing” on its path to net zero in a June progress report to parliament.

In his introduction to the 600-plus page report, CCC chairman Lord Deben concludes that, while the UK is indeed a world leader, the government “is failing in much of its implementation”.

Despite important achievements in renewable energy and electric vehicles sectors, Lord Deben found that significant policy gaps remain, notably on land use and energy efficiency of buildings, and that while “sharply rising fuel costs should have given added impetus to improving energy efficiency… the necessary programmes are not in place”.

The CCC report also found that only 39% of its policies are supported by “credible plans”, while one in three are accompanied by “significant risks”.

Among the CCC’s key recommendations is that the government provides help to bring down energy costs for households while protecting the environment.

One example is in buildings. The report finds that the lack of a sustained reduction in emissions from buildings in the past decade (despite the fact that buildings are the UK’s second-largest source of emissions after surface transport) reflects “low levels of annual, home energy efficiency improvements”.

This should be a wake-up call to prime ministerial hopeful Liz Truss, who has argued as part of her leadership campaign that cutting the ‘green energy levy’ will benefit households facing rising energy bills.

Not everyone agrees. A January analysis from energy policy publication Carbon Brief reveals that energy bills are now £2.5bn higher than they would have been had the Conservative government under David Cameron not scrapped various climate policies over the past decade.

“We need a leader that is going to look at how to address multiple problems with really in-depth and strategic interventions,” says James Alexander, CEO of the UK Sustainable Investment and Finance Association, referring to the race to become Britain’s next prime minister.

He points to the numerous interventions the government could roll out rapidly to address the energy and cost-of-living crises, like giving the green light to the “hundreds of renewable energy projects that have received outline planning permission” but are currently on standby, or targeting spending from a windfall tax on retrofitting – carrying out energy efficiency improvements – for the poorest households.

In stating that the government’s revised strategy must stand up to the scrutiny of the CCC, the court has ensured that the independent body has a heightened influence over the UK’s path to net zero.

Provided the government doesn’t successfully appeal the court's decision, and the new prime minister takes immediate action on the CCC’s recommendations, the UK still has a fighting chance of once again becoming a global leader in the race to net zero.

Capital Monitor is hosting the Webinar series, Making Sense of Net Zero. Find out more information on NSMG.live.

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