Person holding Friends of the Earth banner and wearing a smiley mask shaped like the earth stands outside Royal Courts of Justice

What's the UK's climate plan and why do we need a new one?

For a second time we've defeated the UK government in court over its main climate strategy to reduce carbon emissions and help reach net zero. What's the government's climate plan and why do we need a better one?
  Published:  03 May 2024    |      4 minute read

The government's climate plan is its strategy to reduce the UK’s climate emissions, something it legally has to do to comply with the Climate Change Act. But we’ve proven this climate plan is unlawful, not once but twice thanks to landmark court victories.  

Following a High Court legal challenge, brought alongside ClientEarth and Good Law Project, we’ve defeated the government’s climate plan in court again. We successfully challenged the government’s last plan less than 2 years ago in court. Now we urgently need a new credible plan that achieves our climate targets and shares the benefits of climate action fairly.

Please note: the government’s Carbon Budget Delivery Plan aims to set out how it will meet both the UK’s target under international law to reduce emissions by 68% by 2030, as well as carbon budgets under domestic law which cap emissions in 5-year periods on the pathway to the 2050 net zero target. That’s why below we refer to this plan as a climate plan, not just a net zero plan.

What's the UK government's climate plan?

The government's Carbon Budget Delivery Plan (its climate plan) sets out policies to reduce climate-changing emissions and decarbonise all sectors of the UK economy, from transport to agriculture. The plan is supposed to outline how it will put us on track for net zero emissions by 2050, and meet the shorter-term targets that ensure action starts now and isn't kicked down the road. This includes the UK's pledge under international law to cut emissions by over two-thirds by 2030. 

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.

Victories in court

We've taken the government to court twice via judicial reviews into its climate strategies, the Carbon Budget Delivery Plan and the previous plan, the Net Zero Strategy. Each time, this was on the basis that the plan didn't comply with the Climate Change Act 2008, which was a result of Friends of the Earth’s Big Ask campaign over 15 years ago. Our campaign led to the UK’s legally binding climate targets, and now we’re holding the government accountable to deliver them.

Under the 2008 Act, the Secretary of State has a legal obligation to set out how the UK will meet carbon reduction targets. But neither of its climate plans have been up to to scratch. Our first victory came in July 2022, with the judge ruling in our favour and ordering the government to outline exactly how the policies in its climate plan would achieve carbon emissions targets. That plan’s assertions weren’t supported by the necessary information on how it would achieve the cuts required. There was no way for parliament or the public to know whether the government was actually going to meet its legally binding targets. That meant the strategy wasn’t lawful.  

In 2022 we'd also challenged the government 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. This meant, in our view, that the strategy had been designed without properly 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.

The government’s Carbon Budget Delivery Plan was published in March 2023. We looked at it and still thought it was inadequate. And it’s not just us who were critical. The government’s own official climate advisors, the Climate Change Committee (CCC), also reported last year that, of the emissions cuts needed to meet the sixth carbon budget, only 19% of those cuts are backed by credible policies. That’s much less than its assessment in 2022.

So, in February 2024 we took the government back to court, alongside ClientEarth and Good Law Project. And on 3 May 2024 the High Court delivered a second landmark legal ruling that the government’s climate plan is unlawful.  

Our court case revealed that in November 2022, government officials had “low/ very low confidence” that around half of the emissions reductions required to meet 2 crucial climate targets, the sixth carbon budget and the 2030 pledge, would be generated by the government’s policy package.

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

This is another embarrassing defeat for the government and its reckless and inadequate climate plans. It shows the strength of the Climate Change Act, brought into force after a successful campaign led by Friends of the Earth and the backing of an overwhelming majority of MPs, to hold the government of the day to account for meeting its legal requirements to cut emissions.

Our award-winning legal team has a strong track record of using the law to challenge environmental injustice. For our second landmark challenge on the government’s climate plan, we successfully argued that:

  • The Secretary of State acted irrationally in adopting this plan. The assumption in the plan, that basically everything would run smoothly, was criticised by none other than Lord Deben, former Chair of the Climate Change Committee, and a Conservative Peer. He provided a witness statement supporting our case.
  • The Secretary of State had breached its duty on sustainable development. This duty requires the Secretary of State to be satisfied that the policies adopted “must contribute to sustainable development” (emphasis added). The Secretary of State had applied a less onerous test than this, which amounted to further non-compliance with the Climate Change Act. This is important, because sustainable development is about ensuring the interests of future generations are properly considered.
  • Through the disclosure of key documents only revealed due to this case, it’s clear that the new plan is a high-risk strategy with a high chance of failure. 

Read our legal briefing in full. 

How would a good climate plan affect your life?

We'll all benefit if a climate plan does what it’s supposed to. As well as delivering on our domestic and international commitments, it must prioritise effective solutions that help people, not polluters, here and abroad, ensuring the benefits are fairly spread across society.  

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 and green jobs. Insulation and other housing retrofits will deliver warm homes and lower energy bills. In other words, a greener, fairer and healthier world for all. 

What's next for the UK's climate plan?

The UK government is now dangerously off track to meet its climate targets, including its pledge to cut emissions by over two-thirds by 2030. We urgently need a new credible plan that achieves our climate targets and shares the benefits of climate action fairly.

The judgment given stipulates the government must revise its plan within 12 months. We’ll continue to fight for our future and hold the government to account. 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 will meet our climate targets.  

Help us protect the future of people and our planet

Help us protect the future of people and our planet