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Government taken to court over inadequate climate strategies

Friends of the Earth says the government's "shocking" and "lacklustre" commitments are not enough to deliver a low carbon future
  Published:  12 Jan 2022    |      4 minute read
  • The Net Zero Strategy (NZS), published in October 2021, does not comply with requirements under the Climate Change Act 2008 [1]
  • The Heat and Buildings Strategy, published at the same time and referred to in the NZS, did not consider impact on legally protected groups under the Equality Act 2010

Friends of the Earth is taking the government to court over two of its woefully inadequate climate strategies, and is filing papers today [2]. The Judicial Review, brought to the High Court by the environmental campaign group, will challenge both the government’s Net Zero Strategy (NZS) and its Heat and Buildings Strategy. It will do so on the basis that the NZS does not comply with the Climate Change Act 2008, which Friends of the Earth was central to devising and securing. The group also contends that the Heat and Buildings Strategy should have considered the impacts of its policies on protected groups, as part of ensuring a fair energy transition where climate action aligns with social responsibility.

Friends of the Earth claims the pathways to reach net zero in the NZS are theoretical, because they are not supported by government policy which shows how they can be fulfilled. This means that the Net Zero Strategy is not lawful, and crucially, does not allow parliament and members of the public to hold government accountable for any failures.

Friends of the Earth also claims that the government totally failed to consider the impact of its Heat and Buildings Strategy, published at the same time as the NZS, on protected groups. Factors such as age (both the elderly and the very young who will live with the greatest future climate impacts), sex, race, and disability can make people more vulnerable to climate impacts. This unaddressed inequality needs transparency and political accountability.

A refusal so far to disclose its equality impact assessment for the Net Zero Strategy has raised similar concerns.

The environmental group is concerned that people in these groups can be unfairly and disproportionately impacted by a badly planned transition to low carbon living. Yet the government has not identified and considered their specific needs as required by the Equality Act 2010. Previous government research has shown that more than three million people live in fuel poverty across England. Those considered fuel poor are typically people on a low income and living in poorly insulated homes.

Friends of the Earth previously found [3] that people of colour are twice as likely to be living in fuel poverty as white people, while areas identified by the government as having a high number of residents with disabilities or other health needs are more likely to be rated in the worst category for fuel poverty.

The government did not consider these factors which is why the environment group is today taking legal action.

The need for a fair and just transition away from reliance on damaging fossil fuels makes these collective legal failures all the more serious.

Katie de Kauwe, lawyer at Friends of the Earth, said:

“With characteristic sleight of hand the government has set out an imaginary pathway for reducing carbon emissions but no credible plan to deliver it.

“A rapid and fair transition to a safer future requires a plan that shows how much greenhouse gas reduction the chosen policies will achieve, and by when. That the plan for achieving net zero is published without this information in it is very worrying, and we believe is unlawful.

“We know that those who do least to cause climate breakdown are too often the hardest hit. Climate action must be based on reversing these inequalities, by designing the transition with the most vulnerable in mind. Not even considering the implications of the Heat and Building Strategy on groups such as older and disabled people, and people of colour and ethnic minorities is quite shocking, given these groups are disproportionately impacted by fuel poverty, for example.

“Housing is a good example because people who need to consume the smallest amount of energy due to cost find themselves trapped in reliance on gas heating in cold, leaky homes. And now people across the country are facing an energy price crisis, with gas prices expected to double compared to just two years ago.

“The bottom line is that the government’s vision for net zero doesn’t match the lacklustre policy that is supposed to make it possible. We are very concerned at the potential consequences of such a strategy for people in this country, and across the world, given the climate emergency. This is why we are taking this legal action today.”

Rowan Smith, solicitor at Leigh Day, said:

“Under the Climate Change Act 2008, the Secretary of State has a legal obligation to set out how the UK will actually meet carbon reduction targets. Friends of the Earth considers that the Net Zero Strategy lacks the vital information to give effect to that duty, and so any conclusion, that targets will be achieved on the basis of the policies put forward, is unlawful. Friends of the Earth is concerned that this places future generations at a particular disadvantage, because current mistakes are harder to rectify the closer we get to 2050. That is why this legal challenge is so important.”

ENDS

Notes

[1] Secretary of State for BEIS – Kwasi Kwarteng to produce policies that will enable the carbon budgets to be met (sections 13 and 14 of the Climate Change Act).

[2] Friends of the Earth Limited today filed papers in the High Court challenging the government’s Net Zero Strategy on the basis that it has breached the Climate Change Act 2008, an act which Friends of the Earth campaigned for through its Big Ask Campaign. The organisation is also challenging the government’s Heat and Buildings Strategy and is arguing that it has not complied with the Equality Act 2010, as it did not assess the impacts of this strategy on protected groups, such as disabled people and the elderly, people of colour and other ethnic minorities.

[3] Analysis by Friends of the Earth in November 2021 mapped out regional differences in fuel poverty across England. Its findings included that (i) people of colour are twice as likely to be living in fuel poverty as white people and (ii) that areas identified as having a high number of disabled residents, or people with other health needs, are more likely to be rated in the worst category for fuel poverty.

  • Friends of the Earth is being represented by David Wolfe QC of Matrix Chambers and Catherine Dobson of 39 Essex Chambers, and by the law firm Leigh Day LLP.
  • ClientEarth have also announced a legal case today challenging the lawfulness of the Net Zero Strategy. In addition to claiming breach of the Climate Change Act 2008, ClientEarth lawyers argue that failing to have sufficient policies in place for meeting carbon budgets is not compatible with human rights law. They argue this would exacerbate the already severe risks posed to today’s young people and future generations, including by risking the need for more drastic measures in future.