The High Court, ordered the UK Government to outline exactly how its Net Zero policies will achieve emissions targets, after a legal challenge from environmental groups...

The High Court has spoken; UK Net Zero is illegal. What next?

In what amounts to a confirmation of the existing administration’s illegality on climate, in July the High Court, ordered the UK Government to outline exactly how its Net Zero policies will achieve emissions targets, after a legal challenge from environmental groups, writes our Environment Editor Giles Crosse.

Friends of the Earth, ClientEarth and the Good Law Project had all taken legal action over the government’s flagship climate change strategy, arguing it had illegally failed to include the policies it needed to deliver the promised emissions cuts.

In the judgement, Mr Justice Holgate said the strategy lacked any explanation or quantification of how the government’s plans would achieve the emissions targets, and as such had failed to meet its obligations under the Climate Change Act (CCA) 2008.

Environmental campaigners called the ruling, which came as the UK faced record-breaking temperatures, a “landmark” and “a breakthrough moment”, claiming it showed the Net Zero strategy was in breach of the CCA.

Let’s consider that again. Casting back over some 20 years in sustainable journalism, your correspondent can’t recall another occasion where a lead government strategy has been defined illegal based against its own overarching legislation.

What does it all mean? Should we be righteously furious or is less scandal and more simple mistakes at play?

How did we end up here?

The Guardian reveals that Greg Hands, the energy minister, signed off the Net Zero strategy despite not having the legally required information on how carbon budgets would be met.

It’s plain that for whatever reasons, the eyes within government seemed more fixed on the optics of the strategy vs the reality.

This isn’t something new. Commentators have for the last few years noted the government under Boris Johnson appeared more apt at campaigning than at legislating. It’s a fascinating interplay.

On the one hand, none of the UK’s leading aspiration on Net Zero has gone anywhere. There is no lack of this and indeed we can and should remain proud of it.

But we can’t, for whatever reason, appear to put meat on the bones of the work we produce to actually achieve real world results, which of course are the only metric upon which climate change has any hope of abatement.

No strategy has meaning without real world, tangible proofs and evidences on how the promises will meet the reality.

Deeper analysis

Plenty of law firms are digging into what’s gone on. Clifford Chance, for example, notes that a persuasive Net Zero strategy was key to, ‘Government’s credibility in its role as COP26 President (which took place in November 2021) and to its success in persuading other countries to ramp up their commitments and action on climate change.’

A tacit hint the strategy was rushed out, but with good intentions? Additionally, five per cent of Net Zero reductions would be secured from future “planned policy work” referred to in the strategy but whose predicted effects had been subject only to qualitative analysis and judgement.

In other words, five per cent of the necessary work to hit Net Zero in the real world hadn’t even been done at the time of the strategy’s release.

What’s next?

Clifford Chance says it’s significant that the claimants who sought the judgement viewed much of the content of the Net Zero strategy positively, and they had therefore sought only a declaration that it was unlawful, rather than for it to be quashed in its entirety.

No one ever wanted the Net Zero strategy out, therefore. What is needed and demanded is for its promises to be proven possible by related policy, science and numbers, so we can all embark on work to decarbonise the UK we both believe in and is transparently going the right way.

As things stand, the High Court ordered the Secretary of State to lay a fresh (compliant) Net Zero strategy before Parliament before the end of March 2023. It is also worth noting that these claims did not challenge the ambition of the CCA 2008 targets or the carbon budgets.

To this extent, says Clifford Chance, the judgement is unlikely to lead to a major change in direction of climate policy.

Then again, the firm notes that Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, while signalling their commitment to the Net Zero target, have raised concerns about ‘going too fast’ or ‘harming people and businesses’ in implementing the target.

How this plays into the amendment of the Net Zero strategy will be of concern to businesses seeking certainty of the direction of climate policy.

The Content Coms view

Joanna Watchman, Founder and Managing Director, Content Coms, explains: “It’s of concern to us that Ministers may have pushed through a document they knew wasn’t fit for purpose. I can, to a degree, accept they might have done this to help drive COP26.

“But sustainability and progress are based on both honesty and transparency. The days of greenwash or false targets must be put behind us. The task at hand is too urgent.

“I hope to see a new, more transparent Net Zero document put before the country soon, and then let’s get on with the necessary business of hitting its goals.”

If you’re interested in finding ways to avoid greenwash; why not take a read of the Content Coms Anti-Greenwash Playbook to discover our strategies and advice for more truthful and transparent communications.

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