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Will the government have another “green day” in court?

Rishi Sunak’s latest net-zero proposals mean the UK would still exceed its carbon budget by 2037.

By India Bourke

Last summer, not 24 hours before the UK sweltered under its hottest day on record, the High Court made a landmark ruling: the government’s net-zero strategy was in breach of the Climate Change Act. According to the court, the plan did not show how the nation would reach its goal of reducing net greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050. Try again, the judge demanded, requiring a revised strategy to be published by the end of March 2023.

Yesterday (30 March) that deadline arrived. But, perhaps lulled by the season’s inclement weather, the government still seems bent on brushing-off the political heat. As Rachel Wearmouth summarised on Thursday morning, the headline announcements from a new energy security plan looked set to perpetuate the “policy gap” with the United States. The measures should be derided as a “Groundhog Day” cop-out, said Ed Miliband, the shadow climate secretary, referencing the recycling of old promises on nuclear energy and carbon capture and storage (CCS).

By slowly releasing the full set of documents (totalling hundreds of pages) over the course of the day, the government also carefully stage-managed the analysis that could be unleashed. Even Chris Stark head of the Climate Change Committee, which advises the government, complained that his organisation could not yet offer a reaction due to the manner of the material’s release.

[See also: Brits remained “concerned” about climate change despite rising cost of living]

What is becoming clear, however, is that many of the proposals are undermined by a lack of detail and ambition. New support for floating wind energy, for example, is accompanied by silence on the lifting of the de facto ban on onshore wind, noted the Green Alliance’s Stu Dossett. And while money for things like electric vehicle charging points is welcome, it greatly outweighed support for a shift away from car-use, pointed out Leo Murray from the climate charity Possible. Alternatives to private vehicles are an important part of the net-zero shift, he said. Energy efficiency support, meanwhile, is still far short of the levels required. (The think tank E3G estimates that the new insulation scheme will only insulate 100,000 extra homes a year when 17 million are in need.)

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In terms of timescales, plans for further decarbonisation were promised but will not be released until 2024 (from a plan for solar energy to the restoration of peat bogs). Before yesterday’s announcements, the Green Alliance estimated that over half the emissions cuts needed from agriculture were not backed up by any policy at all. Lydia Collas, from the think tank, says that even after yesterday’s announcements a large gap remains.

Muddying the water further still is the fact that while CCS will be necessary to help some hard-to-decarbonise industries, it should not be used to justify extended fossil-fuel use, warned Bob Ward, of the London School of Economics. Not least since the government is still refusing to block the development of a new oil and gas field at Rosebank in the North Sea.

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So will these latest policy offerings see the government back in court?

According to the Friends of the Earth, the quantified proposals still fall short of the targets for emissions cuts. As Katie de Kauwe, head of legal at the environmental campaign group, explained to Spotlight, the government’s own Carbon Budget Delivery Plan admits that it goes only 97 per cent of the way to meeting the legally binding reductions required by the sixth carbon budget (which covers the period 2033-2037). This missing 3 per cent may seem small, but it amounts to the equivalent of almost all UK car travel emissions, and last time the government was taken to court the gap was only a little bigger, at 5 per cent. The plans go just 92 per cent of the way to meeting the more ambitious commitment of a 78 per cent reduction in emissions by 2035, made by Rishi Sunak at Cop27.

Friends of the Earth brought the original legal challenge together with ClientEarth, the Good Law Project and the environmental campaigner Jo Wheatley, and will now take time to fully assess the plans announced yesterday and seek external advice. We think it is deeply troubling that the government has had the opportunity to work on this since the ruling last July and that the quantified proposals still don’t add up to 100 per cent given the scale of the climate crisis we are facing,” de Kauwe said.

That process means it could be weeks before a decision is made on whether or not to begin new legal action. In the meantime, the consequences of any shortfalls on emissions targets will continue to rise. Economically, business leaders have warned that the UK’s industrial green transition will flounder behind the US and EU, with Britain’s response to Joe Biden‘s green subsidy plans for America not now expected till the Autumn. More concerning still, the climate impacts will deepen.

As report on adaptation to climate change released this week by the Climate Change Committee warned, stemming emissions and adapting to extreme weather are two sides of the same coin: with each delay on the former, living with the effects of the latter becomes harder, riskier and more costly. 

“We don’t stop the rise in temperature till we get to net zero,” noted Baroness Brown. “So we have [at least] another 30 years of increasing climate impacts, which are getting more and more devastating.”

[See also: Will the UK get its own Inflation Reduction Act?]

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