Campaigners poised to take legal action if government misses looming net zero deadline

Campaigners have warned that they are ready to take legal action if the government misses its court-set deadline to publish a revised Net Zero Strategy this month or if the new strategy 'falls short of the mark'.

The secretary of state responsible for net zero, Grant Shapps, must present a revised Net Zero Strategy to Parliament by the end of March after the strategy was found to be unlawful at the High Court last year in a challenge brought by Friends of the Earth, ClientEarth and the Good Law Project.

The strategy was found to be unlawful under the Climate Change Act (CCA), as it was acknowledged that quantitative estimates of the impact of the proposals and policies only counted for 95% of the carbon budget (net zero) being achieved, with the remaining 5% of reductions being met through a qualitative assessment of the impact of the policies.

According to highly sensitive documents leaked to the Observer, which date back to 20 February this year, DEFRA officials state that their own department’s failure to develop policies for cutting carbon emissions “increases the legal risk” on Shapps “if the reduced savings cannot be made across the economy”.

On Wednesday, Shapps is scheduled to present evidence on ‘Mapping the path to net zero’ to the Environmental Audit Committee, in his first session as the secretary of state for the recently set up Energy Security and Net Zero department. 

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt is also expected to announce new net zero initiatives as part of the Spring Budget that same day. Headlines have already been made over news that a £20 billion boost for UK carbon capture projects is on the cards, the largest investment in the technology outside of the US.

Lawyers from the three organisations who made the original challenge to the government strategy have said they are poised to make another legal challenge if the deadline is missed or the new strategy “falls short of what is legally required”.

Friends of the Earth head of policy, Mike Childs, said: “Ministers must now rise to the challenge with a Net Zero Strategy that is lawful, boosts the UK’s international credibility and helps secure the huge economic benefits that building a greener, cleaner future will bring.”

ClientEarth lawyer, Sam Hunter Jones, added that the decision made by the High Court last year was a “major breakthrough in efforts to keep the UK on track with its climate targets”.

“We can’t afford anymore can-kicking and delay that locks us into expensive and polluting fossil fuels,” she added.

Legal director of Good Law Project, Emma Dearnaley, said: “With just weeks to go to meet the court-ordered deadline, it is extremely concerning that we’re being told of Ministers’ catastrophic failure to develop a serious plan to tackle climate change.

“Getting this right should be at the very top of Ministers’ in-trays. Nothing is more important than protecting our planet. We need a strategy that covers the whole country and puts real resources and commitment behind it. There can be no more delays, no more excuses.

“That’s why we are standing by and will not hesitate to take legal action again if this vital strategy continues to fall short of the mark.”

Earlier this year, MP Chris Skidmore set out a detailed independent review of the government’s Net Zero Strategy, which made a number of recommendations that were well received by industry and campaigners.