The Climate Change Committee’s 2023 Progress in reducing emissions Report to Parliament: A summary for climate litigators

13 Jul 2023

Cornerstone Climate

By Verity Bell

On 28 June 2023, the Climate Change Committee (“the CCC”), the independent body established under the Climate Change Act 2008 responsible for reporting to Parliament and the devolved administrations on progress made in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and climate change adaptation, published its latest report to Parliament.

At a high level, the CCC condemns “the slow start to policy development so far” and gives its assessment that the UK “has lost its clear global leadership position on climate action”. The need to act urgently is central to the Progress Report: “There continues to be an overly narrow approach to solutions, which crucially does not embrace the need to reduce demand for high-carbon activities. A more realistic approach to delivery is needed. This cannot wait until after the next General Election”.

This blog post is intended to highlight the particular areas which may be of relevance to forthcoming planning and climate litigation.

Policy gaps cannot be filled by speculative technologies yet to be developed

Following the ruling of the High Court in R(Friends of the Earth, ClientEarth, Good Law Project) v Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy [2022] EWHC 1841 (Admin) that the Government failed to take into account obviously material considerations when formulating the Net Zero Strategy, the Carbon Budget Delivery Plan was published. However, the CCC notes that the Government’s decarbonisation framework is still missing coherent plans to mitigate “considerable delivery risks due to its over-reliance on specific technological solutions, some of which have not yet been deployed at scale”.

The CCC describes a “clear case for demand-side policies to reduce emissions” which should be implemented now in areas such as home energy use, diet, and in the reduction of air and car travel.

The litigants in the Friends of the Earth case announced on 7 July 2023 that they consider the revised plan breaches the Climate Change Act 2008 and so are once again taking the Government to court.

Delayed Land Use Framework and other absent strategies

The CCC is also highly critical of the fact that the publication of the Land Use Framework, setting out how England will manage land use for various important functions such as food security, recreation, climate mitigation and adaptation and nature recovery, has been pushed back to the autumn, with “no formal date scheduled”. The need for co-ordinated policy in the agricultural sector is particularly crucial in view of the significant contribution of that sector to the UK’s overall greenhouse gas emissions. Similarly, the CCC notes that the Government’s Biomass Strategy was due for publication by the end of 2022, but has not yet materialised.

Other failures to take strategic policy decisions include the lack of clear direction on buildings, which the CCC considers is hindering the growth of supply chains for low-carbon heat and limiting progress on power and hydrogen infrastructure, on how the commitment to decarbonising the electricity supply by 2035 will be reached, and on the lack of co-ordinated plans to decarbonise the waste sector.

Radical reforms to the planning system and a full review of the NPPF

Of particular interest to those working in the planning sphere will be the CCC’s recommendation that the imperative of the Net Zero becomes critical to all planning decisions, with the body calling for “radical reform to support Net Zero”. Specifically, the CCC recommends that “the planning system must have an overarching requirement that all planning decisions must be taken giving full regard to the imperative of Net Zero.

This recommendation reflects the finding that delays in the planning system remain a key barrier to deploying low-carbon infrastructure: for example, the Report notes that both onshore wind and solar development are progressing more slowly than offshore wind, in part due to barriers in the planning system, despite being among the cheapest forms of energy generation.

Further, the CCC recommends that the Government’s commitment for a full review of the National Planning Policy Framework (“the NPPF”) takes place this year. At present, the CCC considers that “the NPPF is out-of-date and inconsistent with the level of ambition required to deliver Net Zero and climate adaptation”. The review must ensure that “Net Zero and adaptation outcomes are consistently prioritised through the planning system, making clear that these should work in conjunction with, rather than being overridden by, other outcomes such as development viability”.

This recommendation arguably crystallises the true meaning of “achieving sustainable development”, on the basis that a failure to achieve Net Zero and climate adaptation will inevitably jeopardise the ability of future generations to meet their needs. The CCC notes that the current definition of sustainability is broad, as it gives equal weight to social, economic and environmental considerations, with “no mention of the Climate Change Act”. The presumption in favour of sustainable development means that, effectively, “climate change considerations must compete with other, more clearly measurable, priority areas and are often set aside”.

The CCC considers that the NPPF in its current form appears to be “misaligned to Net Zero”, explicitly referring to the expectation on mineral planning authorities to actively identify areas where coal extraction may be acceptable and allow schemes to proceed should other benefits be shown to outweigh environmental impacts. Such a policy plainly contradicts the CCC’s firm recommendation that expansion of fossil fuel production is not in line with Net Zero.

Managing airport capacity

Noting its prior assessment that there should be no net airport expansion across the UK, the CCC calls for a capacity management framework, recommending that “no airport expansions should proceed” until such a framework is in place. The CCC notes that “any additional airport capacity that would facilitate increased aviation demand should not take place unless corresponding reductions in capacity are made at other UK airports such that net UK airport capacity remains the same”.

Further to the recommendations on aviation, it should be noted that the CCC considers that work to address the effects of non-CO2 emissions must be accelerated, advocating for a minimum 2050 target for such effects could help provide “direction” to the Government’s work programme in this regard.

Fossil fuel development

Much of the UK’s climate litigation currently focuses on fossil fuel developments. The CCC has made two noteworthy interventions in this area, which mark a change from its previous stance. First, the CCC singled out the need to ensure that “decisions on UK fossil fuel production and infrastructure are consistent with Net Zero and the UK’s expectations of others”, as part of the UK regaining its international climate leadership. Second, and possibly more significantly, the CCC states, without qualification that “expansion of fossil fuel production is not in line with Net Zero” and that the UK’s continuing need for some oil and gas until it reaches net zero “does not in itself justify the development of new North Sea fields”.

What next?

The Government is required to respond to the CCC’s Progress Report – including some three hundred specific recommendations – this October.