Why climate activists are celebrating the net zero strategy ruling

Friends of the Earth’s lawyer, Katie de Kauwe, explains why the British government’s climate targets were found to be unlawful by the High Court

Hero image in post
photo: Megan Barclay/Friends of the Earth
Hero image in post
photo: Megan Barclay/Friends of the Earth

Friends of the Earth’s lawyer, Katie de Kauwe, explains why the British government’s climate targets were found to be unlawful by the High Court

By Patrick Heardman22 Jul 2022
7 mins read time
7 mins read time

It’s been a tumultuous week for the Conservative government, which is not only waging a fierce leadership election – televised debates for which have been cancelled due to the damaging optics of blue on blue infighting – but it is now facing an “embarrassing” High Court ruling that has labelled its net zero climate targets as “unlawful”.

The net zero strategy is a policy set out by the British government, which commits the UK to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to ‘net zero’ by 2050. This means cutting these emissions as close to zero as possible, to a level where any remaining emissions are able to be reabsorbed from the atmosphere by oceans and forests.

However, the Conservative’s plan of action has been found to be in breach of its obligations under the Climate Change Act as only 95% of emissions cuts were accounted for in their proposals with the court ruling that they lacked sufficient detail on how to meet the target. The ruling is particularly embarrassing given its timing, a week in which the UK has experienced its first-ever red heat warning as temperatures went beyond 40°C causing wildfires and widespread disruption (check out what your rights are when working in a heatwave here).

In light of this historic ruling, we got in touch with Friends of the Earth lawyer Katie de Kauwe – who led the case alongside environmental law charity ClientEarth and legal campaign group the Good Law Project – in order to find out more about its significance.

Why should we take notice of this ruling on the net zero strategy, and hold the government to account on this?

Katie de Kauwe: This ruling is a huge victory for climate justice and our ability to hold the government accountable for meeting its commitments to cut the harmful emissions that cause climate change. We’re already seeing the impacts of the climate crisis with searing heatwaves, fires and record temperatures. The UK and Europe are suffering with 40-degree heat, while parts of India and Pakistan faced temperatures of around 50 degrees earlier this year.

We need governments – particularly those like the UK’s that have historically contributed the most to causing the global warming we’re seeing now – to take swift and ambitious action to cut emissions so that we can avoid the worst of climate breakdown.

The judge found this week that the government’s plan to tackle climate change, known as its net zero strategy, is unlawful, because it lacks vital pieces of information on how it will meet legally-binding targets to cut planet-heating emissions. Now, the government must rework its strategy and lay out a credible plan for meeting its emissions reductions targets.

Megan Barclay/Friends of the Earth

What happens next, and what work still has to be done on the net zero strategy?

Katie de Kauwe: The court has ordered the government to do better and update its climate strategy by March next year to include a detailed account of how it will achieve the climate targets that will help us avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis. In the meantime, we all need to keep up the pressure for climate action. If our leaders take strong action to cut carbon emissions, it’s a win-win for the climate and cost of living crises. Investing in the UK’s huge potential to develop cheap renewable energy and the long-term jobs it will bring are essential for preventing climate breakdown and addressing soaring fuel bills.

Any new fossil fuel projects are totally incompatible with meeting our climate goals. This means the government must reject plans for a new coal mine in Cumbria and keep in place a ban on the extraction of gas through fracking. The evidence against these projects is overwhelming. The government’s own climate advisors have called plans for new coal ‘absolutely indefensible’.

More than a decade ago, Friends of the Earth led a huge campaign that led to the creation of the Climate Change Act, which is crucial to our country’s ability to tackle the climate crisis. With the threat of new fossil fuel exploitation, we need people to come together again to take a strong stand against new fossil fuel exploitation and help us hold the government to account for not taking the action needed to protect all our futures.

Young people can sign up for information about our campaigns, find out how to join climate leadership courses, and how to set up local action groups through Young Friends of the Earth.

Megan Barclay/Friends of the Earth

Can you explain how law and policy could make all the difference to the climate crisis?

Katie de Kauwe: Laws such as the Climate Change Act mean that the UK government has to take action on the climate crisis. It’s a legally-binding obligation, not something they can just drop if they feel like it. And the court has underlined the importance of the Act this week.

We need to make sure that the government is doing what the laws that parliament has enacted say it has to do. And the Climate Change Act only became law in the first place after years of campaigning by groups like Friends of the Earth.

Individuals and organisations are increasingly using the courts to force governments and fossil fuel companies to meet their obligations under climate change legislation. From the tremendous court victory of Milieudefensie (Friends of the Earth Netherlands) against Shell, to the ongoing legal challenge brought by Peruvian farmer Luciano Lliuya against German energy company RWE over its contribution to climate change, citizens across the world are turning more and more to the courts to seek climate justice.

As global temperatures rise, these laws are vital for all our futures and ensuring commitments to tackle the climate crisis are met.

Megan Barclay/Friends of the Earth

How does taking action on carbon emissions affect us in our everyday lives?

Katie de Kauwe: Cutting carbon emissions by investing in cheap, renewable energy is the answer, not only to tackling the climate crisis, but also soaring energy bills and the huge strain that it is putting on people’s personal finances. Rising energy bills are being driven by soaring gas prices. And those prices are having this effect, because of our continued reliance on fossil fuels.

Energy efficiency is also vital – by investing in a street-by-street insulation programme that targets those most in need first, the government can reduce fuel bills, keep our homes cool in summer and warm in winter, create jobs around the country and cut emissions.

The UK has huge potential to expand its renewable energy sector and create long-term jobs for thousands of people.

How emboldened are you by the ruling, and what is the next plan?

Katie de Kauwe: We’re so proud to have worked on this historic case. The ruling shows that the Climate Change Act can be enforced through our justice system if the government doesn’t comply with its legal duties to tackle the climate crisis.

Despite the really clear benefits of cutting emissions to prevent climate breakdown and addressing the cost of living crisis, our leaders aren’t putting strong climate action at the centre of their plans and instead they’re considering taking us backwards by allowing the first coal mine to open in the UK for 30 years and lifting the ban on fracking.

There is still a lot of work to be done. But this judgement makes it clear that climate targets and the action needed to meet them aren’t optional extras – they are enshrined in our national laws.