UK Government Faces Judicial Review Challenge Over Net Zero Strategy

On January 12, 2022, Friends of the Earth and ClientEarth submitted separate, yet similar, legal challenges to the UK government's Net Zero Strategy: Build Back Greener ("NZS"), published in October 2021 in the run-up to the COP26 Climate Change Conference held in Glasgow. This strategy sets out the governments' aims to keep it on track to meet the UK carbon budgets, the UK's 2030 Nationally Determined Contribution, and net zero by 2050. It includes:

  • Decarbonisation pathways to net zero by 2050, including illustrative scenarios;
  • Policies and proposals to reduce emissions for each key economic sector; and
  • Cross-cutting action to support the transition to net zero.

The NZS was submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC, as the UK's second Long-Term Low Greenhouse Gas Emission Development Strategy under the Paris Agreement. The UK Climate Change Committee, an executive non-departmental public body that advises the government on emissions targets and reports to Parliament on progress on reducing greenhouse gas emissions ("GHG"), described the NZS as "an ambitious and comprehensive strategy that marks a significant step forward for UK climate policy."

Friends of the Earth and ClientEarth are, however, unimpressed and consider the proposals to be unlawful. In essence, the applicants consider the strategy to set inadequate and unambitious policies to tackle climate change. Each argues that the government's legal obligations under the Climate Change Act 2008 are breached due to a failure to set out sufficient near-term action to meet national carbon budgets to reduce GHGs.

Under the Climate Change 2008 Act, the Secretary of State has a legal obligation to set out how the United Kingdom will actually meet carbon reduction targets. It is being argued that the NZS proposals to reach net zero are not supported by the necessary policies. Those launching the challenges suggest that the "pathways" identified are merely theoretical while the technologies identified are simply "speculative and unproven." Friends of the Earth also allege a "flagrant" breach of the Equality Act 2010 in that "the Government has failed to consider the impact of its October 2021 Heat and Buildings Strategy on protected groups (such as older people, disabled people, and people of colour), which is a legal requirement under the Equality Act 2010, and designing the strategy without factoring in specific needs relating to race, disability, gender and age."

ClientEarth also included a breach of human rights argument. The failure to meet carbon budgets risks the United Kingdom having to introduce more drastic measures in the future and pushes the burden onto future generations, with disproportionate impacts on young people's rights to life and to family and private life under the European Convention of Human Rights.

At present the government's response to the claim and its likely defence is unknown, as is the likely outcome of these challenges.

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