Climate change is gearing up to become a key election – and legal – battleground.
‘Just Stop Sunak’ screamed Tuesday’s Daily Mirror in response to the government’s confirmation on Monday that it would grant more than 100 new North Sea oil and gas drilling licences, while The Sun led with the launch of its ‘Give Us A Brake’ campaign, urging politicians to “protect hard-up motorists from expensive net zero policies”. The Times, meanwhile, reported that the government will ask the heads of major UK energy companies to reconsider their investment strategies following Rishi Sunak’s call to “max out the opportunities” in the North Sea.
Emboldened by the Conservatives’ recent Uxbridge by-election victory, in which opposition to the expansion of London’s ultra-low emission zone played no small part, the Prime Minister insisted that plans to expand North Sea drilling, said to be essential for the UK’s energy security, were “entirely consistent with our plan to get to net zero”.
The new North Sea licensing round – which will be accompanied by two more carbon capture and storage projects – drew condemnation from environmental groups, opposition figures, the renewable energy industry, investors and some former Tory ministers.
Lambasting the plan as “the wrong decision at precisely the wrong time, when the rest of the world is experiencing record heatwaves”, Chris Skidmore, the former science minister who led a review into net zero, said it was “on the wrong side of modern voters who will vote with their feet at the next general election for parties that protect, and not threaten, our environment.”
The North Sea plan follows the government’s approval in December of the UK’s first new deep coal mine in thirty years, recent changes to the UK’s carbon trading scheme that cut incentives for industry to reduce emissions, a planned national review of low-traffic neighbourhoods, not to mention a damning progress report from the Climate Change Committee in June, which claimed that the UK has lost its global leadership position on climate change and risks failing to meet legally binding emissions targets made at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow.
Meanwhile, a coalition of nature groups, including the National Trust, RSPB and RSPCA, have threatened to mobilise their 20 million or so members, should the government “use the environment as a political football” by watering down its climate commitments.
The net zero fallout comes amid a continuing rise in climate litigation. According to research published last week by the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University and the UN Environment Programme, the number of climate-related lawsuits has more than doubled in the past five years to 2,180 court cases globally.
And a report by the LSE’s Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, published in June, found a significant increase in legal challenges to the climate policy response of governments and companies, particularly outside the US. It also reported a surge in greenwashing cases relating to climate mis- and disinformation, and an increase in litigation concerning investment decisions – a fact of which the energy companies summoned to Number 10 will be only too aware.
While both reports highlight a growing ESG backlash with a rise in lawsuits that seek to delay climate action or obtain compensation for government climate policies, in the overwhelming majority of cases, “People are … turning to courts to combat the climate crisis, holding governments and the private sector accountable and making litigation a key mechanism for securing climate action and promoting climate justice,” according to Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP.
Indeed, Friends of the Earth, ClientEarth and Good Law Project are taking the UK government to court for the second time in under two years over its plans for tackling climate change. They claim that the government’s revised net zero strategy – the Carbon Budget Delivery Plan – is unlawful and are seeking a judicial review. It follows the organisations’ landmark legal victory last year, with the High Court ruling that the government’s net zero strategy breached the Climate Change Act and required revision to show how key emissions reduction targets would be met.
Greenpeace, meanwhile, was in court last week to challenge the government’s “reckless decision to greenlight a new oil and gas licensing round, without properly checking the damage it will do to the climate”.
The UK government’s climate climbdown and vocal support for motorists, while clearly a calculated risk, is a polarising issue, pitting as it does short-term energy security against long-term green investment, economic self-interest against the ‘greater good’, and – as the Financial Times suggested yesterday – individual freedoms against statutory diktat.
But whatever the ultimate impact on UK voting intentions of the net zero pushback, especially in light of the prolonged cost of living crisis, the increasing appetite for challenging governmental and corporate climate policy response in the courts as we enter the “era of global boiling” means that these latest lawsuits are unlikely to be the last.
With more than half of climate litigation cases having direct judicial outcomes favourable to climate action, including prompting policy changes, according to the LSE report, Rishi Sunak – and the energy companies – better take note.
By Sarah Peters