What's the Net Zero Strategy and why are we trying to fix it?

In 2022 we won a court case against the UK government over its main climate strategy. What's the Net Zero Strategy and why are we back in court to fix it?
  Published:  19 Jul 2022    |      Last updated:  07 Jul 2023    |      4 minute read

The Net Zero Strategy is the government's plan to reduce the UK’s climate emissions, something it legally has to do to comply with the Climate Change Act 2008. In 2022 we won a key court case that made the government rewrite the plan because it wasn’t good enough.

We’ve seen the new plan, and so have the government’s own climate advisors, and neither of us think it'll enable the UK to meet our climate targets. So we’re taking the government to court again, because it's crucial that the plan sets out exactly how we're going to cut emissions.

What's the Net Zero Strategy?

The Net Zero Strategy is a UK government strategy that sets out plans to reduce climate-changing emissions and decarbonise all sectors of the UK economy, from transport to agriculture. These plans are needed to meet its target of net zero emissions by 2050, and the shorter-term targets that ensure action starts now, and isn't kicked down the road.

The term "net zero" refers to net zero carbon emissions.

Getting to net zero means removing as many emissions as we produce, which is vital if we’re to get a grip on climate breakdown. That includes polluting less and holding big fossil fuel companies to account, as well as re-thinking how we use our land and natural resources.

The strategy was published in October 2021, and included measures such as:

  • Ending the sale of new petrol and diesel vans and cars by 2030.
  • Grants to help some households upgrade from gas boilers to low-carbon heating systems like heat pumps.
  • Incentives for farmers to use low-carbon farming methods.

Is the Net Zero Strategy any good?

The Net Zero Strategy is supposed to paint a clear picture of how the government will meet the legal carbon reduction targets it's signed up to. We think it should also include solid figures showing how each piece of the puzzle, from the electrification of vehicles to waste reduction, contributes to reducing overall emissions.

But our experts pored over the original 400-page strategy and found it riddled with holes and omissions.

For starters, it wasn’t clear whether the government had factored in the emissions that will result from its own policies, like its £27 billion road-building programme or plans for airport expansions.

And it got worse. Further concerns included:

  • No promise to end the use of fossil fuels.
  • A lack of investment to fund measures.
  • Overreliance on technology that hasn't even been rolled out yet, such as “sustainable” aviation fuel, carbon capture and storage, and magic animal feed that stops cows and sheep belching methane (a powerful greenhouse gas).

But the major issue was that the strategy didn't contain any assessment of the impact of the proposed policies – it was all theoretical. It's like claiming you're definitely going to lose those Christmas pounds in January by just saying that you'll go to the gym tomorrow. There was no way for parliament or the public to know whether the government is going to meet its legal targets.

Victory in court

On 8-9 June 2022, we took the government to court via a judicial review into the Net Zero Strategy on the basis that it didn't comply with the Climate Change Act 2008, which we helped create.

Under the 2008 Act, the Secretary of State has a legal obligation to set out how the UK will actually meet carbon reduction targets. But the strategy's proposals to reach net zero weren’t supported by the necessary policies. That means the strategy wasn’t lawful.

We'd also requested to take government to court over its failure to consider the impact of its October 2021 Heat and Buildings Strategy on protected groups (such as older people, disabled people, and people of colour), which is a legal requirement under the Equality Act 2010, and for designing the strategy without factoring in specific needs relating to race, disability, gender and age. We were delighted when the government admitted to acting unlawfully and agreed to carry out an equality impact assessment of its Heat and Buildings Strategy.

And more good news came our way on 18 July 2022 when, amid a sweltering heatwave, a judge ruled in our favour and ordered the government to go back and outline exactly how its policies will achieve carbon emissions targets. The government initially sought an appeal but ultimately decided not to pursue this, meaning it had to revise its strategy and lay out a credible plan for meeting emissions targets.

Our lawyer, Katie de Kauwe, summed up the importance of the ruling:

"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."

What's the latest?

On 30 March 2023 the government published its updated Net Zero Strategy, now called the Carbon Budget Delivery Plan.

We’ve assessed the new plan, and we still don’t think it includes the detail that it should, particularly on the likelihood and risks of delivering on its policies. In our view, many of these policies have a high chance of failure. Once again, parliament and the public are being kept in the dark.

And it’s not just us who are critical. The government’s own official climate advisors, the Climate Change Committee (CCC), reported that only 19% of its emission reduction plans are credible. That’s 20% less than its assessment in 2022.

So, we’re taking the government to court again. We’ve filed our papers with the High Court, and if a judge says the case can go ahead, we’ll expect the hearing this autumn or winter. We’re asking the Court to once again uphold the Climate Change Act, and order the government to produce a strategy that meets its climate obligations.

How would the strategy affect your life?

We'll all benefit if the Net Zero Strategy does what it’s supposed to and delivers emissions reductions and a more climate-friendly economy.

Better public and active transport (like cycle lanes and buses) and more electric cars will reduce pollution on roads. More trees will help clean our air and protect nature, while expanding our renewable energy sector will ensure more energy security. In other words, a greener and healthier world for all.

We'll keep holding the government accountable until it produces a Net Zero Strategy that's sufficiently ambitious and credible. We're supported by people like you who want to protect people and planet. A donation today will help us keep fighting for a plan that'll meet our climate targets.

The government's Net Zero Strategy still isn't good enough

The government's Net Zero Strategy still isn't good enough