The government is backsliding on the climate emergency – but the law can hold it to account

When Rishi Sunak announced his climate U-turn, he promised to square the circle between delaying climate policies and hitting climate targets. But the plan he wants to weaken is so threadbare that it was already illegal.

We are now in the crucial decade to stop irreversible damage from global heating, but despite Sunak’s claim that he wants to take “a more pragmatic, proportionate, and realistic approach to meeting net zero” he still hasn’t produced a realistic plan to tackle the climate emergency. Instead he’s botched an auction for offshore wind projects and announced a bonanza on fossil fuel drilling in the North Sea.

But even though some members of Sunak’s cabinet may feel they are above the law, the government still has to abide by it. The new net zero secretary, Claire Coutinho, has claimed that for climate activists, net zero “has become a religion”, but in reality, it is a practical necessity and a fundamental legal duty that the state must uphold.

The Climate Change Act passed into law in 2008 imposes a legal duty on the government to have a viable plan to hit net zero carbon emissions by 2050, as well as meeting a series of carbon targets along the way.

It is not Good Law Project’s role to tell the government exactly how they should reach net zero, but to hold it to account over its legal obligations – and we have a successful track record of doing so.

Last year, we joined forces with ClientEarth and Friends of the Earth to take the government to the High Court over its original net zero strategy, which was inadequate. In a landmark judgment, the High Court ruled in our favour and ordered the government to go back to the drawing board to produce a new and improved strategy which showed exactly how the 2050 deadline would be met.

But the renewed strategy that ministers came up with in March – the so-called Carbon Budget Delivery Plan – is so threadbare it’s still unlawful. Even before Rishi Sunak’s recent U-turn on key green policies, our three organisations had launched a second round of legal action against the government over its updated net zero plan. Our cases will now be heard in the High Court in February.

This fresh legal action we have brought with Friends of the Earth and ClientEarth is multi-pronged. Good Law Project’s side of the challenge focuses on getting the government to be transparent about their assessment of whether all the policies they have come up with will actually get us to net zero or not.

During these proceedings, the government has told us that they have put together “risk tables” for the policies outlined in its Carbon Budget Delivery Plan, but it has refused to make them public. We now want to uncover just what it is trying to hide.

It is impossible to tell whether policies are effective without knowing anything about the difficulties they face. The impacts of these policies will be felt across future generations, so it is vital that the public and Parliament can scrutinise these risk tables.

It is a travesty that the independent Climate Change Committee wasn’t even able to see these risk tables before it published its damning report on the government’s net zero strategy earlier this year.

In her speech to the Conservative Party Conference, Coutinho was keen to cite Rishi Sunak’s commitment to having an “honest” conversation with the public about reaching net zero. But keeping these crucial risk tables under wraps makes clear that the government isn’t interested in coming clean.

We’ve written to Coutinho, reminding her of her responsibilities under the Climate Change Act,  and demanding she explains just how Ministers expect to hit net zero when key climate policies are being watered down. Delaying really crucial policies like those on electric vehicles and boilers which are set to reduce emissions significantly is alarming,  so we have threatened to take further legal action against the government where necessary.

It’s outrageous that Sunak has torn up a political consensus built up around net zero over many years, in a desperate bid to cling on to power.

Reaching net zero is bigger than party politics. The planet is at stake. But the law can help us cut through the smoke and mirrors, making sure we have a plan that will preserve our future. is the UK’s leading digital-only political website, providing comprehensive coverage of UK politics. Subscribe to our daily newsletter here.