Citizens in the UK want their government to commit to stricter emissions reductions.A group of citizens in the UK want to force the government to commit to stricter emissions cuts. Photo credit: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

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By Isabella Kaminski

A group of citizens has vowed to appeal after a United Kingdom court ruled against allowing their case against the UK government to proceed. The group was trying to force the government to strengthen its emissions reduction targets to bring them in line with the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement.

A judge’s decision to deny a judicial review, sought by a group of 11 plaintiffs and the nonprofit Plan B, was published last week—three weeks after a permission hearing in the High Court of England and Wales. A judicial review empowers UK courts to scrutinize whether the government is obeying the law and to hold it to account.

The group had sought to force the UK to review its current carbon emissions target for 2050, set under the country’s Climate Change Act 2008. The plaintiffs argue that the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement, which the UK signed along with 194 other countries in 2016, require much more ambitious emissions cuts. The Secretary of State has the power to alter the target—which represents an 80 percent cut compared with a 1990 baseline—but has not yet done so.

“We are surprised and disappointed by this ruling,” said Tim Crosland, director of Plan B. He said the group plans to appeal.

The case, inspired by a group of Dutch citizens who successfully sued the Netherlands’ government in the Urgenda case, did not argue the reality of climate change or whether the UK should aim for net zero emissions in the second half of the century. Nor did the group claim that the Paris Agreement has direct legal force in the UK. But, it argued, government decisions must be informed by the scientific consensus behind the agreement and the international political consensus it embodies.

Because the government had not changed its target after the Paris Agreement was signed in 2016, the group argued it was refusing to do so, describing that as illegal, irrational and a breach of their human rights.

The UK’s 2050 climate target was set on the basis of what was considered necessary to cut carbon emissions in 2008, not what was considered feasible, said plaintiffs’ attorney Jonathan Crow, also the attorney general to the Prince of Wales. At the time, a 2 degrees C rise in global temperatures was seen as an important threshold, he argued, but the Paris Agreement says warming must be kept to “well under” that and signatories should “pursue efforts” to keep it to 1.5 degrees C.

Government attorney Robert Palmer stressed that the issue of whether to amend the target has not been finalized and the government is working with its independent advisory Committee on Climate Change (CCC). “The Secretary of State is actively seeking further advice from the CCC in precisely the manner that the CCC itself suggested,” he said. Palmer said that amending the 2050 target requires formal evidence from the CCC, agreement from the UK’s various governments (Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland) and approval from parliament.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is due to publish a special report in October on ‘Global Warming of 1.5ºC’, after which the government will seek the CCC’s advice, Palmer said.

The CCC, whose role is to advise the UK government on national carbon targets, said it had reviewed the situation after the Paris Agreement was signed and concluded that no amendment was necessary at that time.

In his decision document the judge, Sir Michael Supperstone, concluded that the Secretary of State has a discretion, not a duty, to amend the target, and was “plainly entitled” to refuse to do so now.

He noted that the government still aimed to have net zero emissions before the end of the century and that this was relevant to its decision-making. Supperstone also agreed with the CCC’s position that the existing 2050 target “is compatible with the Paris Agreement” and that its overall assessment is that the target is “potentially consistent with a wide-range of global temperature outcomes.”  

A government spokesperson said it welcomed the court’s decision: “We look forward to continuing the UK’s ambitious action to tackle climate change, and to seeking the advice of the Committee on Climate Change on the implications of the Paris Agreement for the UK’s long-term targets, after the IPCC report later this year.”