Boris Johnson, the UK premier, may face a humiliating day in court over his plans to save the country’s economy from the Covid-19 crisis.
LONDON, 10 July, 2020 − The UK premier, Boris Johnson, risks a summons to court in a challenge to his government’s Covid-19 recovery plans to extricate the United Kingdom economy from the emergency.
The climate litigation charity, Plan B, which recently blocked the expansion of London’s Heathrow airport through the courts, is now threatening the government with legal action over its Covid plans, saying they ignore the scientific and economic advice to move to a sustainable economy.
The charity says the challenge is intended to oblige the government to tell the truth. It says continuing to treat the climate emergency as a competing priority to Covid recovery would be “a treasonous betrayal.”
Plan B describes the official recovery plans as “a new deal for polluters”, which would lock the UK into a disastrous trajectory towards a world with average temperatures 4˚C hotter than historic levels, implying the loss of billions of human lives.
In 2016 the UK Committee on Climate Change (CCC), an independent body set up to advise Parliament on progress in cutting greenhouse gas emissions and preparing for climate change, issued a warning. It said in a report that year that there would be “at least a small chance of 4°C or more of warming by 2100.”
By 2019 the CCC was arguing more urgently to prepare for the worst, but with scant sign that the government was listening.
It said: “It is prudent to plan adaptation strategies for a scenario of 4°C, but there is little evidence of adaptation planning for even 2°C. Government cannot hide from these risks.”
The consequences of a 4°C rise could be devastating for the natural world. For humans they would be at least as bad. Plan B says in its letter to the prime minister and his colleagues that those on the frontline would include marginalised communities, younger people and those in the Global South.
Pursuing its present course, the charity says, would breach the government’s legal obligations to implement a net-zero policy on carbon emissions, and to uphold the Paris Agreement on climate change (which enshrined a maximum warming limit of 2°C while hoping for 1.5°C) and the right to life.
On 5 June this year the Governor of the Bank of England, Andrew Bailey, published in the Guardian an opinion piece, co-written with his predecessor Mark Carney and counterparts from France and Holland, which concluded: “We have a choice: rebuild the old economy, locking in temperature increases of 4˚C with extreme climate disruption; or build back better, preserving our planet for generations to come.”
“There will be no second chance … this reckless government is on the verge of completing its betrayal of the people of this country”
On 30 June Mr Johnson dismissed environmental protections as “a massive drag on the productivity and prosperity of this country”.
The following day Andrew Bailey wrote: “The Bank’s lending to companies as part of the emergency response to Covid-19 has not incorporated a test based on climate considerations. This was deliberate, because in such a grave emergency affecting this country we have focused on the immediate priority of supporting the jobs and livelihoods of the people of this country…”
Tim Crosland, formerly the head of cyber, prevention and information law at the UK’s National Crime Agency, is the director of Plan B. He says: “It’s vital that people understand the significance of what’s happening.
“There will be no second chance … this reckless government is on the verge of completing its betrayal of the people of this country.”
Dr Jason Hickel, an economic anthropologist at Goldsmiths, University of London, says the UK’s obligations under the Paris Agreement require the government to aim to reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2030.
This is possible, but analysts say it can be done only if the post-Covid recovery process is calibrated to stay in line with this objective, or at least with the government’s own legally-binding 2050 target.
Plan B’s first step has been to send an informal “Letter before Action” to the government. If it does not receive a satisfactory response soon, it says, it will issue a formal letter giving the recipients a chance to correct any misunderstandings, or to reveal a change of direction, and so avoid the process of litigation.
This formal action would be a claim for judicial review, perhaps for example focusing on the role of the Bank of England. No later than by early August, Plan B would expect to have received a reply.
Tim Crosland told the Climate News Network: “Unless we see a fundamental change of approach from the government, which puts the transition to a sustainable economy at the centre of the recovery, this is likely to proceed to court.”
Once the charity has received the response to its formal letter it will file its claim with the High Court, where a judge will decide whether it can go to a full hearing. If that is refused, Plan B will have the right to appeal.
The deadline is close. Plan B’s letter to the government ends: “If we do not hear from you by 17 July, with a clear explanation of how your Covid recovery programme will support the net-zero target and the Paris Agreement, we will have no option but to commence legal action.”
The UK is due to host the next annual UN climate conference, COP-26, (postponed from this year until November 2021) in the Scottish city of Glasgow. A court clash on the grounds specified by Plan B would leave the government risking deep humiliation there.
In February 2020 the Court of Appeal found unanimously in favour of Plan B’s challenge to the government’s intention to build a third runway at Heathrow, setting a precedent with global implications.
Crosland said: “The Heathrow case … was about much more than the third runway. Fundamentally it was about the obligation of the government to tell the truth.
“It can’t keep telling us it’s committed to the Paris Agreement temperature limit, if its actions say the opposite.” − Climate News Network