Campaign group Plan B will find out today whether it will be granted a full hearing to challenge the UK government over its failure to set more ambitions statutory emissions goals
A court is expected to decide today whether the UK government can be sued over its failure to set stronger greenhouse gas reduction targets that align with the Paris Agreement's ambition to keep global temperature increases to 'well below' 2C of warming by the end of the century.
A group of lawyers and green campaigners working under the banner Plan B last year announced plans to challenge the government's target to reduce emissions by 80 per cent between 1990 and 2050, arguing the goal does not align with the UK's international climate change commitments nor the latest climate science.
Lodged by Plan B and 11 individual claimants, the case is set for a permission hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice this morning, at which the group is seeking to persuade the court their case merits a full hearing. A decision is expected at the conclusion of the hearing.
The group is led by former government lawyer Tim Crosland and has won the backing of a number of high profile figures, including former chief scientist and government climate change advisor Professor Sir David King.
If successful, Plan B hopes its legal challenge will force the government to set more ambitious greenhouse gas reduction targets up to 2050.
"If the government acts now, there's an immense opportunity," the group's crowdfunding page states. "An urgent transition to a new energy base will deliver millions of new jobs and businesses in clean technologies."
The UK's Climate Change Act (CCA) came into force in 2008 and places a legal obligation on government to take actions to reduce emissions 80 per cent against 1990 levels by the middle of the century, with progress monitored via interim targets, or carbon budgets, overseen by the independent Committee on Climate Change.
Since then however, the UK and every other nation has signed up to the 2015 Paris Agreement, which commits the world to keeping global average temperature increases to 1.5C or at least 'well below' 2C of warming by the 2100.
The CCC produced a model in its 2016 report which said that to be consistent with a 1.5C world the UK would need to reduce its emissions by 86-96 per cent by 2050.
But while Plan B argues the UK must now up its emissions ambition in order to keep it in line with its international obligations, it is not arguing for any specific new target to be set, according to Crosland, the campaign group's director.
"The point of this is to align to the science," Crosland told BusinessGreen. "If the science changes, or emissions are higher than expected, we're going to need to revise the target. All those things have come to pass and we have remained stuck on auto pilot - all those things are going ahead of the modelling and we need to react to that."
The government, Crosland argues, is acting contrary to commitments in the CCA, which state that the government must avoid serious harm to human welfare now and in the future, and to implement the government's international obligations.
"We want the government to support, to embrace this," added Crosland. "We want the government to do the right thing."
Government ministers have previously promised to enshrine a net zero emissions target into UK law. But, despite recent calls from high profile politicians such as former Conservative Party leader Michael Howard and former Labour leader Ed Miliband, no moves have yet been made to strengthen legislation.
A spokesman for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) told BusinessGreen that now was "not the right time" to set a new emissions reduction target.
"The advice of the independent Committee on Climate Change in 2016 was clear that now is not the time to set a new target," BEIS said in a statement. "Our Clean Growth Strategy sets out how we will continue to cut emissions while keeping costs down for consumers, creating good jobs and growing the economy."
The CCC declined to comment specifically on today's hearing but, like BEIS, highlighted its 2016 report on the implications of Paris for the UK's carbon budgets, which includes the following statement:
It also states that the CCC currently has "no scenarios for how the UK can achieve net zero domestic emissions", adding that alongside efficiency improvements and zero carbon energy sources, meeting such a target would mean having to remove 100Mt of carbon per year from the atmosphere, potentially through future technologies such as biomass carbon capture and storage (CCS).
However, assessing the government's Clean Growth Strategy last year, the CCC said the government should "wait to set more ambitious long term targets until it had strong policies in place for meeting existing budgets and the evidence base is firmer on the appropriate level of such targets".
For Crosland, though, the question of how ambitious the UK's 2050 targets should be is a critical one for businesses. "Businesses want certainty and to know where to invest," he said. "The worst possible thing for business is the status quo, where you've kind of got government and the Committee acknowledging the targets have to change, but they're not changing it. So there is no certainty - the 2050 target is in limbo and nobody knows where they stand. That is not a helpful position for business to be in."
Nevertheless, he denied the legal challenge was a publicity stunt, pointing to growing instances of climate litigation worldwide, including challenges from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Hollywood actor and former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. In a landmark 2015 ruling, the Dutch government was also forced to cut carbon emissions by 25 per cent within five years as a result of legal action.
"Anything could happen - we are only doing this because our legal advice is that we have a decent chance of success," said Crosland. "This is a movement - when the political process is letting us down, what else do we do but pursue accountability through the courts? We absolutely believe in it."
The hearing is expected to take place at the Royal Courts of Justice at around 10.30am today.
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