In a landmark ruling last week, the UK’s High Court found that the government has failed to present an adequate strategy to meet its 2050 net zero ambitions, and ordered it to outline a detailed emissions reduction plan.

The lawsuit was brought to the High Court by NGOs Friends of the Earth, ClientEarth and the Good Law Project, which argued that the government was not holding up to its obligations under the Climate Change Act of 2008. The Climate Change Act made it the duty of the Secretary of State to ensure that the UK reduced its emissions by 100% compared to 1990 by 2050. 

According to the claimants, the government’s Net Zero Strategy, presented last year just ahead of COP26 meetings in Glasgow, did not include the data necessary to assess its effectiveness in curbing greenhouse gas emissions – a claim the court found justified. Now, the government has until April 2023 to submit a new Net Zero Strategy report outlining and quantifying the ways its net zero policies will achieve emissions targets.

This is the latest in a series of court cases initiated by citizens and NGOs against governments and institutions for their lack of action to counter climate change: the UNEP Global Climate Litigation Report 2020 found that between 2017 and 2020, the number of such court cases went from 884 in 24 countries to at least 1,550 in 38 countries. 

What’s particularly interesting is that courts are increasingly finding governments guilty of not doing enough against climate change. In early 2021, a Paris court ruled that the French state had failed to take sufficient action in a case brought by four nongovernmental organizations, and was, as such, partially responsible for climate change. In a follow-up ruling last October, it ordered the government to bring the country’s carbon emissions down by about 15 million tons, to reach the target established in the first carbon budget (2015-2018) by the end of 2022.

What does the UK climate ruling mean?

The UK government now has to prepare a fresh Net Zero Strategy report that clearly quantifies emissions reductions. The strategy itself is unlikely to change, as it was not questioned by the court or even the claimants. But the addition of measurable data points will promote transparency and accountability in climate action. This follows a general trend to make climate targets more data-based, as opposed to aspirational, in order to combat greenwashing

The timing of this review is interesting, as the Ukraine-Russia war and the resulting threat of a natural gas shortage has led many European countries to prioritize energy security over decarbonization – by approving new fossil fuel developments at home. In fact, at least three new oil and gas or coal developments have been approved by the UK government since COP26.

Data-based climate targets

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