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

In July 2022, Friends of the Earth won a key court case against the UK government over one of its climate strategies. Find out what the Net Zero Strategy is and why we’re determined to fix it.
  Published:  19 Jul 2022    |      3 minute read

What's the Net Zero Strategy?

The Net Zero Strategy is a UK government strategy that sets out plans to reduce climate-wrecking 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 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 doesn’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

In January 2022, we filed papers with the high court asking for a judicial review into the government's Net Zero Strategy on the basis that it doesn’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 and it didn’t allow parliament and members of the public like you and me to hold the government accountable.

We 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 designing the strategy without factoring in specific needs relating to race, disability, gender and age.

In March 2022 we received exciting news: the High Court granted us permission to take the government to court over both strategies and on all of our grounds. Our legal team is now hard at work preparing for the full court hearing with our barristers and the law firm Leigh Day.

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 sought an appeal, but we’re delighted to confirm that it recently decided not to pursue this after all. That means our win in the High Court stands. Now the government has to revise its strategy and lay out a credible plan for meeting emissions targets.

Our colleague and 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."

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.

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