Radhika Devesher takes a look at the legal duty to achieve net-zero placed upon the UK.
Before we explore how we can assist our clients with legal obstacles and concerns, we want to go back to basics and look at the legal duty to achieve net-zero placed upon the UK. Please see below some Questions and Answers about the Climate Change Act and the relevance of the Paris Agreement to the UK’s Net Zero goals.
What is the UK Government’s Duties under the Climate Change Act?
- The Climate Change Act 2008 (CCA) received royal assent on 26 November 2008.
- Section 1 CCA states the Secretary of State has a legal duty to ensure that the UK meets their target of reducing the net UK carbon account by 100% by 2050 compared to 1990 levels (2050 Target). In practice, this means that the net UK emissions of greenhouse gases, after any carbon units are added or subtracted in accordance with carbon accounting rules, are taken into account to reach the 2050 Target.
- Additionally, Section 4 CCA sets out the requirement for the Secretary of State to set 5-yearly carbon budgets (published 12 years in advance) that act as interim UK targets.
- The CCA also includes a number of reporting provisions which are mandatory under the CCA and help to monitor whether the UK is and will continue to meet its net zero target.
Does the 2050 Target apply to the whole of the UK?
The scope of the CCA and of the 2050 Target applies to the UK as a whole, however some sections are specific to England and Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland. The net UK carbon account includes all emissions from sources in the UK and the CCA does not specify targets for certain sectors or bodies.
Does the UK have commitments to the Paris Agreement?
In 2016 the government also entered into the Paris Agreement, which was an international commitment by the UK to reducing climate change. The Paris Agreement is legally binding in so far as signatory countries are required to set a nationally determined contribution (i.e. targets) and re-evaluate this NDC every 5 years. However, the NDC itself is not legally binding. The UK’s current NDC is to reduce economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions by at least 68% by 2030 compared to
What are the sanctions for non-compliance with the CCA and other carbon duties?
Whilst the 2050 target is enshrined in law and the Secretary of State is required to report to Parliament on specified matters, there is no mechanism in the CCA with which to enforce compliance by public bodies and organisations.
Similarly, save for a committee established to facilitate the implementation and to promote compliance with the Agreement, the Paris Agreement does not contain any specific compliance methods that will apply if the UK does not achieve its NDC.
As such, in the absence of sanctions contained within the CCA or Paris agreement the primary sanction for any non-compliance would be judicial review.
We are currently mindful that ClientEarth and Friends of the Earth have filed separate judicial review claims against the Secretary of State arguing that the (newly revised) Carbon Budget does not comply with the CCA. Both climate groups claimed that policies in the Secretary of State’s Carbon Budget are insufficient and too theoretical to achieve the legally binding targets. They have both been granted permission to proceed with their legal challenges, but both cases are yet to go to trial so the outcome is not yet known, Ideally, further clarity could be provided as to how JR actions regarding climate change obligations may impact on the government going forward.
 All reference to the CCA should be read as amended by The Climate Change Act 2008 (2050 Target Amendment) Order 2019
Radhika Devesher is a Senior Associate at Sharpe Pritchard LLP.
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