Climate Activists Turn to Courts to Defend Net Zero

    Stockholm (NordSIP) – As Western Europe suffers from record-breaking temperatures, droughts and wildfires, lawyers are emerging as the unexpected heroes on the frontline of the battle against the climate crisis.  A Dutch court ruled last year that by 2030 Shell was legally obliged to have cut its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 45% compared to 2019 levels, in accordance with the Paris climate accords.  Also in the Netherlands, environmental organisations earlier this month sued the national airline KLM over what they argue are misleading claims related to the firm’s “Fly Responsibly” campaign.  It is not just corporations that are coming under legal fire.  On July 18, 2022, the High Court in the United Kingdom ruled that the government’s Net Zero Strategy breaches the country’s Climate Change Act.

    The UK has sometimes been seen as a global leader in terms of high-level commitments, having written a 2050 net-zero target into law back in 2019.  However, despite presiding over the latest COP26 climate conference, the country’s climate policy is coming under increased scrutiny and criticism.  The latest legal challenge was brought by environment and legal charities Friends of the Earth, ClientEarth, the Good Law Project and environmental campaigner Jo Wheatley.  NordSIP has regularly covered instances of long-term climate targets being used as a smokescreen for a “business-as-usual” approach.  In this case, the court agreed with the litigants’ contention that the UK government’s Net Zero Strategy does not meet its obligations under the Climate Change Act to produce detailed policies that show how the UK’s legally binding carbon budgets will be met.

    UK Government failed to do its maths homework

    It is quite simply a case of the numbers not adding up.  The internal calculations carried out to quantify the impact of emissions cuts from policies in the government’s Net Zero Strategy did not correspond with the reductions needed to meet the UK’s sixth carbon budget covering the period from 2033 to 2037.  Despite this discrepancy and other key missing information, the net zero strategy was signed off by Greg Hands, the Minister for Business, Energy and Clean Growth.  The court ruled that he did not have the legally required level of information to back-up his carbon budget.  Moreover, the government was criticised for a lack of transparency, as the underlying data were not shared with the UK parliament.

    A powerful precedent

    Katie de Kauwe, a lawyer with Friends of the Earth, hailed the ruling as “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.”  The High Court’s ruling set a fundamental precedent at a time when many elements within the ruling Conservative party are seeking to undermine and politicise the Net Zero strategy.  Alok Sharma, the government minister acting as President of COP26 this week threatened to resign if the incoming UK Prime Minister were to discard the policy.

    The success of these climate related legal challenges is encouraging at a time when the urgency conveyed at supranational level is rarely being reflected in effective near-term national government actions.  With greenwashing companies also coming under the legal microscope, perhaps it is time for institutional investors to recruit some new legal talent for their engagement and stewardship teams.

    Image courtesy of succo from Pixabay (edited)
    Richard Tyszkiewicz
    Richard Tyszkiewicz
    Richard has over 30 years’ experience in the international investment industry. He has worked closely with major Nordic investors on consultancy projects, focusing on the evaluation of external asset managers. While doing so, Richard built up a strong practical understanding of the challenges faced by institutional investors seeking to integrate ESG into their portfolios. Richard has an MA degree in Management and Spanish from St Andrews University, and sustainability qualifications from Cambridge University, PRI and the CFA Institute.

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