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Legal action by climate activists on the rise

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Published: 2 August 2022

A UK court has given the government eight months to spell out its net zero plans, as the number of court cases attempting to hold governments and companies to account over their climate policies continues to soar

A group of climate campaigners have made a successful legal challenge in the UK High Court to highlight the shortcomings of the UK government’s strategy for reaching net zero | Photo of Royal Courts of Justice in London by gregobagel on iStock

Setting climate change targets is relatively cheap and easy, while implementing the measures needed to reach them is usually complex and expensive. It’s perhaps no surprise then that governments sometimes seek to delay or water down their commitments when economic times are tough.  

That is something climate campaigners say cannot be allowed to happen, and they are making increasing use of the courts to expose failings or clarify the law surrounding energy transition and environmental pledges.     

In the latest legal action to be fought, a group of climate campaigners have made a successful legal challenge in the UK High Court to highlight the shortcomings of the UK government’s strategy for reaching net zero – the balancing point where a country’s manmade greenhouse gas emissions are equivalent to the amount of GHGs it is removing from the atmosphere.    

The ruling said the government’s Net Zero Strategy, setting out plans to decarbonise the UK economy, had not met its obligations under the UK’s Climate Change Act to provide detailed climate policies showing how the country’s legally binding carbon budgets will be met. It also said the minister responsible for signing off the Net Zero Strategy had approved it despite not having the legally required information on how carbon budgets would be met. 

The challenges were brought by legal NGO ClientEarth, Friends of the Earth, the Good Law Project and environmental campaigner Jo Wheatley, at a hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice in London in June. The ruling was published on July 18, the day before the UK recorded its hottest recorded temperature of 40.3 degrees C. 

The judgement and accompanying order mean the government now has eight months to update its strategy and provide a quantified account of how its policies will achieve the carbon budgets. This new plan will need to be presented to Parliament and scrutinised by MPs.  

“The revised plan should include sound policies that stand up to the scrutiny of the [UK] Climate Change Committee, 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”, according to the campaigners who brought the action. 

New leader, new green policies? 

The government’s response will be made at a time of flux in UK politics, following the resignation of Prime Minister Boris Johnson on July 7. Two minsters in his cabinet, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss now face a vote of members of the ruling Conservative party by early September to decide which will succeed him as prime minister.

Both candidates have said they are committed to the UK’s net zero by 2050 target, but have a mixed record on support for climate action. Truss, the frontrunner in polls, has said she may seek to remove green levies on energy bills to help ameliorate the current cost of living crisis.

In 2014, when environment secretary, she introduced cuts to solar power subsidies and said land earmarked for solar farms could be better used to grow food. Sunak has ruled out revitalising the UK’s stalled onshore wind programme, saying he would prefer to focus on developing offshore wind, in which the UK is a leader, despite the higher cost.  

Legal action catches on 

Whoever wins may well find their programme open to further legal scrutiny. A report from the Grantham Research Institute (GRI), published in June, found climate litigation was now an established instrument used to enforce or enhance climate commitments made by governments around the world.

The GRI said 73 “framework” cases has been brought globally to challenge governments’ overall responses to climate change. It also reported that the number of climate-change related cases of any type had more than doubled since 2015 to more than 2,000 in total, with a quarter of those filed between 2020 and 2022.    

“Over the last 12 months, further legal cases have been brought against fossil fuel companies, especially outside the United States. Cases against corporate actors are also increasingly targeting the food and agriculture, transport, plastics and finance sectors,” the GRI said. 

The UK courts were also successfully used recently by charities to clarify the law governing their investment policies. The charities were concerned that if they chose to remove investments from their portfolios that did not align with their charitable purpose, they might fall foul of a law that seemed to indicate they needed to prioritise returns over impact in their investment strategies.

The ruling means charities in England and Wales can now exclude specific investments at odds with their charitable purposes without risking breaking the law. This, in turn, paves the way for them to bolster the number of higher risk environmental and social impact investments in their portfolios.  

Lawyers representing all interested parties in the climate change battle are unlikely to be short of work over the next few years. But, while court action may prove effective in many countries, it is likely to have limited impact in some of those seen as lagging on introducing carbon emissions reductions measures, such as Russia, China and Saudi Arabia, which have legal systems that struggle to hold the government to account. 

Using the legal system for environmental action can also cut both ways, as shown by a recent ruling by the US Supreme Court to limit the ability of the US Environmental Protection Agency to force through measures to speed up the energy transition in power generation. 

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