The government’s strategy for getting to net zero breaches the Climate Change Act, the High Court has found, and must be fleshed out to include more detail around how it will achieve the UK’s carbon targets.

The ruling is the result of a successful legal challenge brought by Good Law Project, environmental campaigner Joanna Wheatley, Client Earth and Friends of the Earth. In a judgment published on 18 July – amid the Met Office’s first ever red alert for extreme heat – the Court found that the Net Zero Strategy doesn’t meet the government’s legal obligations to produce detailed climate policies that show how the UK’s legally-binding carbon budgets will be met.

It also finds that parliament and the public were effectively kept in the dark about a shortfall in meeting a key target to cut emissions.

The ruling states that Greg Hands, the minister for business, energy and industrial strategy, who was responsible for signing off the Net Zero Strategy, didn’t have the legally required information on how carbon budgets would be met. However, he nevertheless approved the strategy.

The Court ordered the government to update its climate strategy to include a quantified account of how its policies will achieve climate targets, based on a realistic assessment of what it actually expects them to deliver. The updated strategy will have to be presented to parliament for scrutiny by MPs.

The refreshed plan should include sound policies that stand up to the scrutiny of the Climate Change Committee (CCC), which recently found that credible plans exist for just two fifths of the government’s required emissions reductions . The judgment strengthens the critical expert role of the committee by stating that their advice must be given “considerable weight”.

Policy shortfall

During the court proceedings, it emerged that behind-the-scenes calculations by civil servants to quantify the impact of emissions cuts from policies in the government’s Net Zero Strategy did not add up to the reductions necessary to meet the sixth carbon budget – the volume of greenhouse gases the UK can emit during the period 2033-37.

This 5% shortfall over the sixth carbon budget is significant in climate terms and totals around 75 million tonnes of CO2e – equivalent to almost the total annual emissions from all car travel in the UK. These figures were not shared with parliament, or made available for public scrutiny.

Friends of the Earth lawyer, Katie de Kauwe, said: “We’re proud to have worked on this historic case. Taking strong action to cut carbon emissions is a win-win. Not only is it essential to preventing climate breakdown, but we can also tackle the cost of living crisis with cheap, renewable energy. This landmark ruling is a huge victory for climate justice and government transparency. It shows that the Climate Change Act is a piece of legislation which has teeth, and can, if necessary, be enforced through our court system if the government does not comply with its legal duties.”

Sam Hunter Jones, senior lawyer at ClientEarth, said: “This decision is a breakthrough moment in the fight against climate delay and inaction. It forces the government to put in place climate plans that will actually address the crisis.The court has emphasised that the risks to delivery of the UK’s climate targets are “all- important” – the government must now address those risks when it prepares a revised strategy that meets the requirements of the Climate Change Act.”

Net zero and the Conservative leadership race

The ruling comes as the race for the next Conservative Party Leader intensifies, with four MPs left in the running. The candidates’ track records on climate are being scrutinised – will the next Tory leader take climate seriously? We’ve got analysis on our sister site – Project Net Zero.