Is the UK’s new net-zero strategy likely to face further legal challenges?

What’s happening? Emissions from a new single North Sea oil and gas field could be enough to exceed the UK’s carbon budgets from its operations alone, according to research by campaign group Uplift. The Rosebank field has the potential to produce 500 million barrels of oil, making it the largest undeveloped oil field in the North Sea. The analysis found emissions from Rosebank’s operations could reach 5.6 million tonnes of CO2, this figure does not count the emissions from burning the oil and gas Rosebank will produce. (The Guardian)

Why does this matter? When added to the emissions from the operations of existing oil and gas fields the 5.6 million tonnes of CO2 from Rosebank would be enough to exceed the UK’s total carbon budget from 2028. This means that if the Rosebank field went ahead, other sectors of the economy would have to accelerate their emissions reductions to allow the UK to stay within its carbon budget.

Legality of UK’s climate strategy – In July 2022, a High Court ruling found that the UK government’s climate strategy breaches the Climate Change Act. The court case revealed that the government’s net zero strategy would not meet the sixth carbon budget for 2033-2037. The ruling gave the government the deadline of 31 March 2023 to update its climate strategy.

UK government responds – On 30 March 2023, the government published a range of climate and energy documents on its so called “green day”. With its new net-zero strategy, the government is also responding to the global energy crisis and the race for net zero triggered by the US Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). After President Joe Biden unveiled the IRA last year the European Commission launched its Green Deal Industrial Plan in February 2023.

What does the new package include? The main part of the government’s new climate and energy package is “Powering Up Britain” – this includes an overview of the government’s plans along with the new energy security and net-zero strategies. The package also includes a revised green finance strategy.

Furthermore, there are new consultations planned on a possible carbon border tax and sustainable aviation fuels, along with a minimum sales target for clean cars and heating systems. The government has previously committed to introducing rules requiring at least 10% of UK jet fuel to be made from “sustainable sources” by 2030. The government’s advisory body, the Climate Change Committee has previously said that the continued expansion of the aviation industry is incompatible with its 2050 net zero target, even under all scenarios of technological advance.

Is the new strategy still at risk of a legal challenge? The climate policy package includes a carbon budget delivery plan which aims to meet the requirements of the High Court ruling, and whilst the plan delivers just 97% of the emissions cuts needed for the UK’s sixth carbon budget, Carbon Brief expects the risk of further legal challenges is reduced since the High Court ruling does not require the government’s plan to add up to 100% of every budget. The shortfall is roughly equivalent to around 32m tonnes of CO2e over the five years from 2033-2037.

What is said about oil and gas? The Powering Up Britain plan said that the North Sea Transition Authorities’ main objective of maximising offshore oil and gas production in UK waters will remain. In 2022, the UK government announced plans for regulatory “accelerators” to reduce development time for North Sea oil and gas projects. Earlier this year the government approved the Talbot oil and gas field.

Critical responses – Responding to the government’s plans, the Grantham Research Institute said the lack of a long-term investment plan undermines investor confidence. RenewableUK said the plan does not do enough to attract the investment needed into renewables. Friends of the Earth said the latest plans are dangerously lacking ambition and that the announcements do little to help meet climate goals.

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