Next Prime Minister to face legal requirement to beef up Net Zero Strategy

As Tory leadership candidates yesterday signaled their support for the UK’s net zero goals, the High Court ruled the government must do more to explain how it intends to decarbonise the economy

The in-tray awaiting the next Prime Minister just got even more daunting.

Just hours after the candidates to become the next Conservative Party leader took part in a sweltering hustings in Parliament organized by the Conservative Environment Network (CEN), the High Court ruled that the government’s current Net Zero Strategy is unlawful and inadequate. Ministers were ordered to update the plan and provide more clarity on precisely how legally binding medium and long-term emissions targets will be met.

Ruling on a case brought by Friends of the Earth, ClientEarth, and the Good Law Project, Mr Justice Holgate agreed the strategy lacked sufficient explanation or quantification as to how the decarbonisation plans set out in the Net Zero strategy published last autumn would achieve emissions targets for the 2030s and beyond. As such, he ruled the government had failed to meet its obligations under Climate Change Act 2008 (CCA) and ordered Ministers to update the plan and present it to Parliament by April 2023.

Environmental campaigners hailed the ruling as “a breakthrough moment” at a time when the UK is facing a record-breaking heat wave and independent analysis has shown the government is not on track to meet its climate goals.

“We’re proud to have worked on this historic case,” said Katie de Kauwe, a lawyer with Friends of the Earth. “This landmark ruling is a huge victory for climate justice and government transparency. It shows that the Climate Change Act is a piece of legislation which has teeth, and can, if necessary, be enforced through our court system if the government does not comply with its legal duties.”

The ruling had been widely expected by many observers. The Net Zero Strategy (NZS) was released in autumn 2021, just ahead of the COP26 Climate Summit, and while it contained a raft of policies, targets, and plans designed to curb emissions commentators at the time highlighted how it failed to incorporate detailed modeling showing how much officials expected policies to reduce emissions. The Strategy was also criticized for failing to provide sufficient detail on how the government planned to tackle emissions from certain sectors, such as farming and land use and aviation.

In his ruling, Holgate said: “The NZS did not go below national and sector levels to look at the contributions to emissions reductions made by individual policies (or by interacting policies) where assessed as being quantifiable. In my judgment it ought to have done so in order to comply with the language and statutory purposes of s.14 of the CCA 2008.”

He also said that Energy Minister Greg Hands had signed off on the strategy, despite not having the legally required information on how carbon budgets would be met.

The Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) said the ruling did not impact the substance of its Net Zero Strategy, which would continue to proceed as. “The Net Zero Strategy remains government policy and has not been quashed,” a spokesperson said. “The judge made no criticism about the substance of our plans which are well on track and, in fact, the claims themselves described them as ‘laudable’ during the proceedings.”

However, the court does want to see the government show its workings and demonstrate how the current plans will deliver emissions savings in line with the legally-binding carbon budgets for the 2030s onwards. Moreover, the ruling comes just weeks after the Climate Change Committee (CCC) published an in-depth progress report warning how on multiple fronts the UK is not on track to meet its emissions goals for the 2030s, and arguing that urgent action is needed to new policies and investments that can accelerate decarbonisation efforts.

As such, the court order presents a major challenge to the next Prime Minister, who will be under immediate pressure to both strengthen the UK’s net zero plans and deliver a more ambitious package to help households cope with soaring energy bills this winter.

The ruling came just hours after the remaining candidates attended a private hustings organised by CEN, chaired by COP26 President Alok Sharma, and attended by around 50 MPs, during which they faced questions about their support for the UK’s net zero targets, their plans to accelerate the green industrial revolution, and how they intended to deliver on the government’s goal to reverse the decline of nature.

Significantly, all the candidates, including Kemi Badenoch who had previously voiced reservations about the UK’s net zero targets, recommitted to achieving net zero emissions and delivering on the country’s interim climate targets. They also all stressed that they wanted to do more to tackle biodiversity loss and water pollution, and a number of candidates floated new policy proposals.

Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss, and Tom Tugendhat – that latter of whom would drop out of the race later in the day after coming in last place in the latest round of voting by MPs – signalled they would be open to the idea of ​​a carbon border adjustment mechanism to help tackle the risk of ‘carbon leakage’, whereby industries relocate to regions with lower carbon prices.

Sunak also built on comments made in the televised debates over the weekend that he wanted to see the government do more on energy efficiency, and indicated he would look at launching a new energy efficiency scheme to tackle the cost of living. The scheme would focus on the cheaper measures such as smart heating controls and cavity wall insulation, he said, in comments that will come as a surprise to environmental campaigners who blame the former chancellor for blocking previous proposals to increase funding for energy programmes.

Sunak also indicated that he wanted to see more investment in natural carbon sinks, describing peat restoration as a “pet project”.

Penny Mordaunt reiterated her support for an expansion of renewable energy capacity that could both boost energy security and create millions of green jobs, flagging the potential for tidal and geothermal power, as well as more established renewable technologies.

Trust – who is backed by a number of MPs who remain vocal critics of the UK’s climate plans – similarly stressed her support for the UK’s net zero plans and said that the case for clean energy had been further strengthened by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. She also argued that her plan to move green levies to be funded through general taxation could be paid for by the current fiscal headroom in the Treasury’s plans and in a surprise move committed to leading a UK delegation to the upcoming COP 15 Biodiversity Summit in Montreal this autumn if election leader.

In addition, she repeated proposals to look again at the EU’s habitat directive and instead have a stronger, British biodiversity target, based on animals and plants that are endangered here rather than in the EU as a whole.

Badenoch, who yesterday came just ahead of Tugendhat to remain in the race, sought to clarify her position on the UK’s net zero target after previously characterising the government’s plans as being equivalent to ‘unilateral economic disarmament’. She told MPs she did not want to change current climate targets, but she said wanted to overhaul the current plan for achieving the targets. For example, she said the 2030 phase out date for the sale of new petrol and diesel car phaseout sent a good signal to the market, but argued a better plan was needed to upgrade the grid to cope with demand from electric vehicle charging.

However, straight after the hustings Badenoch gave an interview to TalkTV in which she seemed to row back on her support for the current net zero by 2050 target, arguing there were “circumstances where I would delay it”.

“I think that the target itself is a bit of a red herring,” she added. “We need to look at the plan. I believe there is climate change and that’s something we do need to tackle, but we have to do it in a way that doesn’t bankrupt our economy. We’ve got to take people with us What would happen if we moved it to 2060 or 2070?

Recent projects from the Office for Budgetary Responsibility (OBR) and other experts have suggested soaring fossil fuel prices mean that transitioning to a net zero emission economy would be net positive for the economy, even before significant co-benefits such as improved health outcomes and reduced climate risks are considered. Badenoch is yet to provide an example of policies that could “bankrupt” the UK in pursuit of net zero.

Following the hustings, Sam Hall, director of CEN, said it was hugely encouraging that all the candidates had now pledged to honor the UK’s net zero by 2050 target.

“Net zero is necessary to tackle dangerous climate change, win a majority for the Conservatives in 2024, ease cost of living pressures, and drive clean growth across the UK,” he said. “It’s clear that the net zero debate in this leadership contest is about how – not if – we should decarbonise our economy. Polls consistently show that the environment is one of the public’s top priorities. In the remaining stages of this contest, it is important that the leadership candidates continue to set out their plans for delivering on their environmental commitments.”

However, it is not just the public that want the next Prime Minister to provide a more detailed and ambitious plan for decarbonising the UK’s economy and ensuring that it is more resilient to the kind of heatwaves the country it is experiencing this week – the courts also want to see more clarity, and they have just landed the next administration with an eight month deadline for providing it.

Want to find out more about how the net zero transition could impact your organisation? Sign up now to attend the Net Zero Festival in London on September 28th and 29th.

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