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Net Zero Strategy: High Court Ruling

Volume 823: debated on Thursday 21 July 2022

Commons Urgent Question

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat the Answer to an Urgent Question in the other place given by my right honourable friend Greg Hands MP:

“Over the past three decades, the UK has driven down emissions by over 45%—the fastest reduction of any G7 country. We have one of the most ambitious carbon-reduction plans in the world, pledging to reduce emissions by at least 68% by 2030 and by 77% by 2035, compared to 1990 levels, before of course reaching net zero by 2050. Our track record speaks for itself: the UK has overachieved against the first carbon budget and exceeded the second by nearly 14%. Latest projections show that we are on track to meet the third carbon budget as well.

In its judgment on the judicial review of the net zero strategy, the High Court found that the Government had not complied sufficiently with the Climate Change Act in relation to specific procedural issues and the level of analysis published as part of the 164-page Net Zero Strategy. I would stress that the judge has made no criticism about the substance of our plans to meet net zero, which are well on track. Indeed, even the claimants in the case described the net zero strategy as ‘laudable’. The independent Climate Change Committee described the net zero strategy as

‘an ambitious and comprehensive strategy that marks a significant step forward for UK climate policy’

and as

‘the world’s most comprehensive plan to reach Net Zero’.

We are now considering the implications of the judgment and deciding whether to appeal. As we do this, our focus will remain resolutely on supporting people in the face of globally high energy prices and boosting our energy security. Our recent British Energy Security Strategy—launched by the Prime Minister—which puts Great Britain at the leading edge of the global energy revolution, will deliver a more independent, more secure energy system and support consumers to manage their energy bills.”

My Lords, paragraph 252 of the High Court judgment ruled that the Government’s net zero strategy was unlawful. The court found that the net zero strategy did not go below national and sector levels to look at contributions to emissions reductions, and that it needs to be rewritten with quantified accounts and a realistic assessment. The Energy Bill is currently passing through your Lordships’ House; it establishes an independent system operator and planner, which is a welcome step. However, the legislation does not establish a system operator and planner at a regional level to promote the 2008 Act. If Her Majesty’s Opposition were to lay an amendment to deliver a regional system operator and planner which would solve some of the problems of the judgment, would Her Majesty’s Government support that?

I would need to look at the details of the noble Lord’s amendment before giving him an answer. As the Climate Change Committee recognises, the net zero strategy is a comprehensive plan for meeting our climate targets, which outlines measures to transition to a green and sustainable future, helping businesses and consumers move to clean power. We think we are on strategy; as I said, we will look closely at the judgment and decide whether or not to appeal.

My Lords, one of the problems is that the Government have been very good on targets but much less good on delivery. Can the Minister comment on the view of the former Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, that we should not relax the restraints on onshore power or encourage it? Is that how we will achieve delivery against these targets?

I think the noble Lord is wrong in his first statements; we have so far met, or indeed exceeded, all our carbon budgets and we are on track to meet the latest one. This is a reference to a carbon budget in 12 or 17 years’ time, so of course we will look closely at the implications of the judgment. On the noble Lord’s question, we have said that we are not against the expansion of onshore wind, but we will need to do it in close co-operation with, and with the support of, local communities. Meanwhile, as he will be aware, we have massively expanded the ambition of our offshore wind, which during the latest contracts for difference round is now coming in at record low prices.

My Lords, when I saw this headline judgment, I thought for a moment that the court might be making the obvious point—which I think most people agree with—that while our national net-zero target is pressing ahead rather well, with the contribution and efforts of my noble friend, and while other Western countries are moving towards net zero, emissions are rising very fast when they should be at least level, if not falling, under the Paris targets. The Paris targets are receding, and almost everyone in the world of combating climate change recognises that a vast uplift in international efforts to curb carbon emissions, of the kind that involves a huge abstraction of carbon from the atmosphere on a global scale, is now needed. That is what the UN and the IPCC are saying and even the CCC agrees to it. Leading figures such as John Kerry also agree with this view. If there is a criticism, it is perhaps that our contribution there is not realised enough, so much are we concentrating on NZ. However, I fully agree that we are doing that rather well, and I hope that we appeal.

My noble friend makes some important points. Of course, our contribution to global emissions is relatively small, but this is very much a global problem. As a leading industrialised nation, it is right that we should set an example, and we are doing so. As I said, we have some of the fastest and most ambitious reduction targets. We will certainly look closely at the judgment, but we will carry on with our ambitious decarbonisation strategy.

My Lords, the court judgment refers to the need for and the lack of quantified realistic assessments. If we look at what we have heard from the Government in recent days, we have the frankly fanciful jet-zero aviation strategy and the Energy Bill, with its huge focus on the unproven-at-scale carbon capture and storage. I am aware that the Minister cannot speak for whatever future Government we might have, but will he acknowledge the judgment of the Committee on Climate Change, among others, that the Government’s plans and action on agriculture, buildings and heat are totally inadequate, and that these are areas in which urgent action and deliverable plans are needed?

I thank the noble Baroness for her questions. I do not share her pessimism about the jet fuel initiative. It is very important that we deliver low-carbon jet fuel. After all, we want to enable her Green colleagues to continue to fly up to COP summits in a carbon-neutral manner. With regard to her comments about the other contributions we need to make, of course agriculture is a particular challenge. The energy sector is decarbonising well. Home emissions are difficult for the UK, given the age of our housing stock; something like 6 million homes were built before the First World War, and a third of our properties were built before the Second World War. That presents a fairly unique challenge in Europe, but it is one that we are tackling. Emissions are coming down, and we are proceeding well.

My Lords, surely a key aspect of reaching net zero is implementing the British Energy Security Strategy, which aims to increase the share of nuclear to 25%. Can the Minister tell the House what more the Government are doing to encourage modular nuclear systems and nuclear fusion?

My noble friend is absolutely right; I am sure he noticed the granting of planning permission to the Sizewell C reactor yesterday. We are supporting Rolls-Royce to the tune of over £100 million to support the production of designs for small modular reactors, and we think that they will have a significant contribution to make—albeit not for a number of years yet. Of course, the latest developments in fusion, which we are also supporting, are particularly exciting. If my noble friend wants to contribute to the debates on the Energy Bill, we are setting in place a regulatory framework for fusion.

My Lords, can I use this as an opportunity to plug a great new report out today, Investing in Energy: Price, Security, and the Transition to Net Zero, by the Economic Affairs Committee, which I happen to chair? It is very timely because, on the back of this Question, it concludes—as my noble friend Lord Howell said—that while there has been considerable progress by this Government, for which they should be given credit, there are

“gaps between the Government’s ambitions and practical policy”

which are “significant”. I hope my noble friend will take this report with him to his deckchair to read.

I have one specific point regarding where we are right now as we approach what will probably be another very difficult winter in terms of energy and energy prices. One of the committee’s core recommendations was that the Government should publish an energy demand reduction strategy particularly focused on home insulation. Would my noble friend take that recommendation back and peruse it so that the next Government can act on it swiftly when they come in September?

I thank my noble friend for his recommendation for my holiday reading. I am not certain yet I will get a holiday, but if I do, I am sure his committee’s report will make fascinating reading—though I need no persuading of the importance of home energy efficiency and insulation schemes. We continue to progress work on just such a scheme, and I hope the new Prime Minister, when he or she comes into office, will support it.

I will be taking the Energy Bill with me as my holiday reading. I congratulate my noble friend on the Statement he made and on having regard to the unprecedented energy circumstances in which we find ourselves and the challenges this poses for farmers and others. In support of the words of my noble friend Lord Howell, I ask my noble friend the Minister to increase the efforts of international co-operation to ensure that other countries are matching the efforts of this country and others in Europe.

My noble friend can be assured that we will do that. We make a relatively small contribution. We need to set the lead, but this is the epitome of an international problem, and all our efforts will be negated if other, bigger emitters do not reduce their emissions as well, so her point is correct and powerfully made.