Downing Street Take Note – Legal Action Over Climate Change Is Gaining Traction

And claimants are trying to take the UK to court.
PM Rishi Sunak
PM Rishi Sunak
WPA Pool via Getty Images

The government released a whole new set of climate policies earlier this year, and rolled back on green pledges.

Now, the government is being taken to court over inadequate climate action.

Here’s what you need to know.

How is the government being taken to court?

In November, Kevin Jordan – who has a home five metres from the edge of a cliff in Norfolk – is suing the government, with support of Friends of the Earth in what is thought to be the first of its kind.

Under the Climate Change Act 2008, the government has to produce a national adaptation programme every five years, including explaining how it will protect communities in the UK from extreme weather.

But Jordan said a road near him recently collapsed into the North Sea, making his home unreachable by car.

According to The Guardian, Jordan is now taking the government to court over its supposed failure to set out lawful “adaptation objectives”, saying this is a breach of his human rights.

His legal challenge is accompanied by co-claimant Doug Paulley, who has a long-term health conditions which make him vulnerable to overheating.

Friends of the Earth’s head of legal, Will Rundle, told The Guardian that ” the government’s latest adaptation plan continues to fall far short of what ’s needed”.

The government’s Department for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs has denied any wrongdoing.

Is that the only area where the government is under fire?

The government’s revised Net Zero Strategy – the first draft of which came out in July 2022 – includes promises to up carbon capture with two new “cluster” locations, and a framework to meet the UK’s £11.6 billion COP26 commitment.

It also promises to look into recommendations from ex-minister Chris Skidmore’s review of net zero, although it’s not clear how many of his 129 recommendations will be implemented.

Within the hefty document, it also said its offer to take £5,000 off heat pumps is being extended by three years to 2028 to offer applicants more time, and a offshore wind fund is being launched too.

Campaigners have already indicated that they’re not happy with these commitments.

Environmental campaigners Friends of the Earth, ClientEarth and Good Law Project took the government to court last July over the first draft of its Net Zero Strategy – and won.

That’s why the government had to publish a revised version of the strategy in March this year.

At the time, the High Court ruled that ministers had not met their obligations under the Climate Change Act to produce detailed climate policies, demonstrating how the UK would limit its carbon output.

But Friends of the Earth think that this latest government announcement on climate change and energy security could be inadequate, too.

The campaigners’ head of policy, Mike Childs, warned in March: “Ministers should be scaling up and accelerating the race to net zero, but these plans look half-baked, half-hearted and dangerously lacking ambition.”

He added: “We will be combing through the detail of the amended strategy and are poised to act if minsters have fallen short once again.”

What other criticism has the government faced?

The Climate Change Committee (CCC) an independent group of experts meant to offer the government advice over the climate crisis.

Its new report, published in March, found that the UK has achieved none of the 45 adaptation outcomes the government set out to, with only five having credible plans.

Chair of the CCC’s adaptation committee, Baroness Brown, even said: “The last decade has been a lost decade in terms of preparing for and adapting to the risks – the risks we already have and those that we know are coming.”

It’s worth noting that the Conservatives have been in power since 2010.

She continued: “Whilst we’ve seen some progress in planning for climate change, in fact there is still very little evidence of impact on the ground.”

Brown also condemned the government’s “lack of urgency on climate resilience” while “nature and infrastructure face damaging impacts as climate change takes hold”.

In response, a UK government spokesperson told the BBC: “We have taken decisive action to improve the UK’s climate change resilience – including investing a record £5.2 billion into flood defences.”

In this aerial view Firefighters contain a wildfire that encroached on nearby homes in Sheffield on July 20, 2022 during a heatwave
In this aerial view Firefighters contain a wildfire that encroached on nearby homes in Sheffield on July 20, 2022 during a heatwave
Christopher Furlong via Getty Images

These findings from the CCC show that even the government’s advisers are concerned about its approach.

And, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to deny the impact climate change is having directly on the UK.

The 40C heatwave in the summer of 2022 led to 1,000 heat-related deaths, and 20% of hospital operations had to be cancelled.

There was major disruption to transport too, suggesting that the country just cannot deal with such extreme temperatures, especially when wildfires, droughts and then flash floods followed.

These climate extremes are only expect to worsen over the decades too, according to the latest shocking report from the UN-backed intergovernmental panel on climate change.

Even if the international goal of net zero carbon emissions is met by 2050, the CCC’s chief executive Chris Stark warned that the climate will continue to warm up for another 30 years.

The UK must prepare for hotter and more unstable conditions – but, as the CCC suggests, we’re nowhere near ready for more extreme temperatures.

Have any other governments faced legal action?

It was revealed earlier this year that more than 2,000 women are pursuing a lawsuit against the Swiss government over its climate change policy.

This matters because it’s the first time the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) will listen to a case about the impact inaction over climate change can have on people’s right to life and health.

The members of the claimants in the self-named Club of Climate Seniors (with an average age of 73) will be putting their own medical records forward as part of their court evidence in their case against the Swiss government.

Their goal is for the ECHR to push Switzerland – where temperatures are rising faster than the global average – to make more effort to reach net zero.

The European Climate and Health Observatory has already noted that projected temperatures are expected to have an especially detrimental impact on the elderly.

It’s found that in just the last two decades, heat-related mortality in those over 65 in Europe has increased by more than 30%.

The Swiss government doesn’t deny that climate change can impact health but said it cannot be clearly linked to the Club of Climate Seniors’ health.

But, if the claimants win their case, it could set a precedent for all of the member states in the ECHR – including the UK.

Is there an international shift coming?

There just might be a significant change on the horizon. The world’s top court, the International Court of Justice, has been asked for an opinion on a country’s legal obligation to fight climate change, after students in Fiji suggested the idea back in 2019.

The Fiji islands have been especially affected by the change climate, which only strengthen the case. The UN has approved the request.

The legal opinion of the ICJ is non-binding but could then help build climate court cases everywhere.

International environmental campaign group Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior is already calling at ports across the Pacific for evidence ahead of the hearing in The Hague next year.


What's Hot