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ClientEarth case shows courts willing to scrutinise governments’ climate strategies

A judge’s finding that the UK government’s plan for reaching net zero emissions required greater clarity “demonstrates the willingness of courts to scrutinise the climate change strategies of governments”, according to one legal expert.

Justice David Holgate ordered the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) to publish an updated ‘net zero’ strategy (NZS) that includes more detail, after it emerged that ministers could not demonstrate how each policy in the strategy would contribute to achieving the legally-required emissions reductions targets in the 2008 Climate Change Act.

The UK’s current NZS includes a commitment to ensure that the UK will be powered entirely by clean electricity by 2035. But environmental law charity Client Earth, one of the campaign groups that took the government to court, argued that the strategy contained “huge gaps” and breached section 14 of the Climate Change Act, which requires ministers to show that their plan will reduce emissions enough to meet carbon targets.

Handing down his decision, Justice Holgate said: “A report under section 14 is important not only to enable parliament to scrutinise the secretary of state’s policies and to hold him to account, but also to provide transparency so that the public can properly understand how the government intends to meet the statutory targets.” BEIS has until the end of March 2023 to publish an updated NZS.

Michael Fenn of Pinsent Masons said: “This case demonstrates the willingness of courts to scrutinise the climate change strategies of governments and, when necessary, make orders requiring governments to do more. Although this decision is novel in the United Kingdom it shouldn’t come as a surprise, as ‘framework cases’ such as this have been filed before national courts in 22 countries.”

Chris Dryland of Pinsent Masons said: “This decision does not mean that the government’s NZS will fail to deliver net zero by 2050. Instead, the judgment requires ministers to provide greater transparency, explanations and quantifications, so that the public can understand how the NZS will be met. The government will also need to provide a mechanism by which MPs can scrutinise the strategy and hold the secretary of state to account.”

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