Legal setback for government over net zero plan as Britain swelters in heatwave

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Fire crews fight a wildfire near Chesterfield in Derbyshire on Monday  (Tom Maddick/SWNS)
Fire crews fight a wildfire near Chesterfield in Derbyshire on Monday (Tom Maddick/SWNS)

Ministers failed to outline exactly how their net zero strategy will achieve emissions targets, a court ruled on Monday – dealing the government’s climate change credentials a serious blow on the day Britain sweltered under its first ever red extreme temperature alert.

Proposals for meeting emission targets were too vague for business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng to claim in parliament that the government was on track to fulfil its global warming promises, the High Court said.

Detailed analysis was omitted from the strategy even though “it is plain from the evidence before the court that the information existed at the time”, Mr Justice Holgate concluded.

Legal campaigners the Good Law Project, who mounted the challenge with Friends of the Earth and Client Earth, said the ruling amounted to a finding that the strategy was “illegal and inadequate” and said Mr Kwarteng had been ordered to produce an improved version within eight months and to pay the activists’ costs.

The embarrassing setback came as an influential parliamentary committee warned of a “major hole at the centre of government” over the resilience of the UK’s critical national infrastructure to climate change.

And Boris Johnson was accused of “clocking off” as he missed a third meeting of the government’s emergency Cobra committee to discuss the heatwave, which saw flights disrupted by melting runways at Luton airport and RAF Brize Norton as temperatures topped 38C.

Record temperature levels were broken twice in a day in Wales, and firefighters reported at least 24 wildfires in 48 hours in England and Wales – double the number recorded in all of July last year.

Tuesday is expected to be even warmer, with some forecasts estimating highs of 43C – well above the previous peak of 38.7C recorded in 2019.

People are being advised not to travel on public transport unless “absolutely necessary”, while multiple schools have told The Independent that around a third of their pupils – or in some cases more than half – are absent today.

Experts said that more must be done to “heat-proof” the country, which is “not built for 40C”.

Professor Hannah Cloke, a natural hazards researcher at the University of Reading, said “severe heatwaves are a problem that’s not going away – and they will get worse.”

She added: “We can no longer tolerate poor design of our buildings and our cities, and we urgently need to think about things like reducing overheating, shading, trees, building for cooling, and providing these public cooling spaces … because we’re not prepared and we’re not built for 40 degrees.”

All five of the contenders for the Conservative leadership are now committed to Mr Johnson’s 2050 target for net zero carbon emissions in the UK, after Kemi Badenoch became to last to back the goal.

But Ms Badenoch later branded the deadline a “red herring” and indicated she was ready to let it slip to avoid damaging the UK’s economy, telling Talk TV’s The News Desk: “There are circumstances where I would delay it…

“The legislation we’ve put in is for 2050. That is a long, long time in the future. Practically none of us will still be here to be held accountable for it. So, I think it’s a red herring.

“What would happen if we moved it to 2060 or 2070? We’re not going to be here. Let’s be realistic about what we can do now with the responsibility and the power and the levers that we have available.”

Monday’s High Court ruling found that information supplied by officials to Mr Kwarteng about the effectiveness of various climate change policies was not precise enough for him to be able to assure MPs to a “legally essential” standard that the government was on track for net zero.

And it said the net zero strategy did not make clear that official predictions were for 95 per cent of emissions to be eliminated, rather than 100 per cent, or explain how the 5 per cent shortfall could be made up.

The Good Law Project said: “The dangerous heatwave this week is a stark reminder of the very real threat we face.

“Our infrastructure and homes were designed for a climate that no longer exists. This cannot wait. The net zero target must be a road map to a sustainable future – not a lie we tell our children.”

A Beis spokesperson said: “The Net Zero Strategy remains government policy and has not been quashed. The judge made no criticism about the substance of our plans which are well on track and, in fact, the claimants themselves described them as ‘laudable’ during the proceedings.”

Meanwhile, parliament’s joint committee on the national security strategy blasted government minister Michael Ellis for refusing to give evidence to its inquiry on how critical national infrastructure, like power networks, railway lines and roads, is being prepared for the effects of climate change.

Despite previously describing himself as the minister “responsible for resilience and security”, Mr Ellis told the committee he would not attend a 4 July hearing as he was “not best placed to give evidence” on a “technical and specialist matter”.

Committee chair Margaret Beckett said: “The unfortunate impression that we are gaining … is that there are no ministers with responsibility for the resilience of critical national infrastructure to the effects of climate change, nor for cross-government climate adaptation efforts. This would be quite a shocking admission from the government.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said Mr Johnson appeared to have “checked out” as the prime minister missed a Cobra meeting on the heatwave to attend Farnborough Air Show, where he boasted to business leaders about his record in office and recounted how he had taken the controls of a Typhoon fighter jet on a visit to RAF Coningsby last week.

The PM was previously criticised for missing a Cobra meeting on the heatwave on Saturday, when he hosted a farewell party for supporters at country retreat Chequers.

“For many people it’s going to be a real struggle today and tomorrow in the heat, and they’re seeing a prime minister who’s basically checked out, so he’s not really doing anything,” said Starmer.

And London mayor Sadiq Khan said Mr Johnson should resign immediately rather than enjoy a “joyride” on a fighter jet and “go on a jolly”.

But Downing Street insisted it was “not unusual” for meetings of the emergency committee to led by ministers rather than the PM.

Cabinet Office minister Kit Malthouse, who took the chair today, said Mr Johnson was being regularly updated and denounced what he said was “a politically motivated assault upon the prime minister, which is completely unfair”.

The shadow climate change secretary Ed Miliband told The Independent: "While Britain boils, the Conservatives bury their heads in the sand about the greatest long-term threat our country faces, the climate crisis.

“For years we have heard the warnings about a rapidly warming world. But Tory politicians failed to listen. Now, as Britain swelters and our railways melt, the Conservatives waste their time on fantasy economics and climate denial.

“Britain faces a choice – higher energy bills, instability and the chaos of a rapidly warming world with the Conservatives, or a plan for a green energy sprint to tackle the climate crisis and the cost of living crisis with Labour.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said: “The net zero strategy remains government policy and has not been quashed. The judge made no criticism about the substance of our plans which are well on track and, in fact, the claimants themselves described them as ‘laudable’ during the proceedings.”

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