Climate protesters demonstrate in front of UK Parliament in WestminsterActivists are demanding UK governments live up to their responsibility to cut emissions under the country's Climate Change Act. Photo credit: John Keeble/Getty Images

By Karen Savage

An environmental law organization has told dozens of municipalities in England that it will take legal action against them if they do not create and implement local climate change plans as mandated by law.

In letters sent to 100 local governments, ClientEarth, an environmental law organization, is demanding officials across England create climate plans that will achieve “net zero emissions by setting robust carbon reduction targets.” It demands the communities live up to their responsibilities under the United Kingdom’s Climate Change Act of 2008, to monitor the progress of those plans and to report their progress annually.

“There is a collective failure by local authorities across England to plan adequately for climate change. Too often climate change is perceived to be just a national or international issue and therefore solely the responsibility of central government,” Sam Hunter Jones, an attorney for ClientEarth said in a statement.

Local plans are required by law to include “robust evidence-based carbon targets” that “contribute to the mitigation of, and adaptation to, climate change.” Targets, which may vary by region, should be based on local assessments and are required to support the transition to a low-carbon future.

Hunter Jones said while the central government needs to do more to address climate change, local authorities wield a great deal of power.

“So many of the daily decisions around new and existing infrastructure—such as new buildings, roads and utilities—are made at the local level. All of these decisions will ‘lock in’ an area’s future emissions and its resilience to climate change,” Hunter Jones said, adding that those decisions must also be in line with national and international commitments.

Under the Paris Agreement, the UK has committed to reducing its emissions in line with the goal of limiting the global average temperature increase to well below 2 degrees Celsius. The UK in June revised the Climate Change Act to include emissions reduction targets of “at least 100 percent by 2050,” or net zero.

Those targets align with recommendations made by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), an independent statutory body that advises the UK government on emissions targets and reports the progress to Parliament.

In its 2019 report, the CCC found that “UK action to curb greenhouse gas emissions is lagging behind what is needed to meet legally-binding emissions targets.” 

According to the CCC, the annual average temperature in England has increased by 1 degree Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels and will rise by 4 degrees or more if current trends continue.

“England is not prepared for the impacts of a 2-degree Celsius increase in global and UK temperature, let alone a 4-degree temperature increase,” said the CCC.

Several local authorities in the UK have declared climate emergencies and Parliament followed suit in May. 

The CCC said in addition to creating adaptation plans to protect communities from the effects of climate change, it is imperative that the UK take every action possible to prevent temperatures from rising even further.

To accomplish that, it said all levels and departments of government—including local governments—must adopt net-zero policies that align with national and international goals.

ClientEarth said it hopes to help local authorities as they prepare their plans, but it is prepared to take further action—including possible litigation—if they fail to meet their legal obligations. The organization has given local authorities until Oct. 28 to respond.

“Scientists warn that we have 10 years to transform our economies and avoid catastrophic climate change, but decisions that will have ramifications for decades are being made now by authorities with no idea if these decisions are consistent with national and international commitments to limit emissions,” Hunter Jones said.

“Each and every planning decision taken today must be in line with long-term climate goals, because what and how we build today will determine our climate impact and resilience in the crucial decades to come.” 

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