Three young British citizens and the climate litigation charity Plan B today announced they are taking legal action against the UK government for failing to sufficiently address the climate crisis.
The announcement comes on the five year anniversary of the landmark Paris Agreement — the international accord intended to limit global temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius — and the lawsuit is the latest in a cascade of litigation around the world aimed at holding governments and polluters accountable for fuelling climate change.
Today’s action involves serving a formal letter upon British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak as the first step in the litigation process, with a court filing to come likely in early 2021.
The legal action asserts that the UK — the historic birthplace of the fossil-fueled Industrial Revolution — is continuing to finance the climate crisis and has failed to develop an emergency plan to comprehensively and aggressively tackle the crisis. The case alleges violations of human rights protected under British and international law, specifically rights to life and to private and family life. And the case alleges the government has not met its legal obligations to tackle climate change under the UK Climate Change Act of 2008 and the Paris Agreement.
The plaintiffs’ families come from parts of the world already experiencing devastating climate consequences, including Africa, Latin American, and the Caribbean, which have in recent years seen calamitous storms, flooding, and droughts. The young plaintiffs are Jerry Amokwandoh (age 22), Adetola Onamade (age 23), and Marina Tricks (age 19). They are supported by the British charity Plan B, which brought a successful legal action initiated in 2018 against the government’s plans to expand Heathrow Airport, as well as by a UK-based environmental and social justice campaign called Stop the Maangamizi.
The three young people suing the British government over the climate emergency. Plan B is supporting this case pro bono (free of charge) and has launched a crowdfunding campaign. Credit: @GlobalMajorityVs
Plan B says that given the UK government’s self-proclaimed position as a “climate leader” and position as host of the international United Nations climate summit (COP26) next year in Glasgow, the failure to develop an emergency plan on climate is an abdication of its duties to its people and the international community. The goal of the lawsuit is a court order forcing the government to develop an emergency plan in accordance with its legal obligations.
“The Government claims to be showing leadership on the basis of an inadequate net zero [emissions] target it is failing to meet,” Plan B said in a press release. “Yet, it has failed to prepare even for the minimum level of climate impact and plans to cut financial support for the most vulnerable communities around the world. It knows the City of London is financing levels of warming that would devastate our society.”
The plaintiffs specifically demand that the UK government take measures, guided by climate science, to meet its legally binding targets for reducing domestic greenhouse gas emissions, adapt to climate impacts and support vulnerable communities in adapting, and to prevent UK-based financing, whether the government or big banks, from driving continued global warming (by financing fossil fuel projects abroad, for example).
The UK announced in 2019 it would be committing to a 2050 goal of reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions, an improvement from its previous target of 80 percent emissions cuts by mid-century. And in 2019 the UK Parliament passed a motion to declare a climate emergency.
But as the new lawsuit highlights, the government has not developed an emergency plan, and it continues to sink financing into the carbon-based economy and overseas fossil fuel projects. The UK government is spending roughly £1billion on a gas project in Mozambique for example, and financing oil and gas exploration in the North Sea. The government is also supporting £27 billion of new investment in the national road network and a £16.5 billion increase in military spending, both of which contribute to climate change as the transportation and defense sectors use fossil fuels. One analysis earlier this year found the UK military’s carbon footprint is equivalent to the emissions of six million cars.
According to Climate Action Tracker — an initiative that analyzes countries’ climate commitments in the context of the Paris Agreement goals — the UK is considered “insufficient” in aligning with those goals, meaning its actions help put the world on track for up to 3 degrees Celsius of warming.
Paris Agreement Anniversary and Global Climate Litigation
Five years on from the Paris Agreement being developed, the world is not on a path to achieving the objectives of this milestone agreement. This is largely due to the outsized influence of polluting industries like fossil fuels, which have essentially captured the political process and held governments hostage to serving their interests.
“Five years after Paris, we’re seeing the same kind of stranglehold from the fossil fuel industry and big polluters that have stalled the [United Nations climate] talks for more than two decades,” Sriram Madhusoodanan, U.S. Climate Campaign Director for Corporate Accountability, told DeSmog.
He said the rise of climate litigation, including the new lawsuit targeting the UK, is a testament to how fed up people are of governments remaining captive to the fossil fuel industry and the lack of climate action.
“We’re seeing in this moment of so much industry power and delay these legal strategies are one of the most hopeful things for delivering greater climate ambition and justice,” Madhusoodanan said.
In the U.S., climate accountability lawsuits have targeted both the federal government and major petroleum companies like Chevron and ExxonMobil.
In the Netherlands, a landmark court case has successfully forced the Dutch government to commit to steeper emissions cuts, and oil major Royal Dutch Shell is currently facing public court hearings this month in another potentially groundbreaking climate lawsuit. And young people around the world are increasingly suing their governments for failing to protect them from the unfolding climate emergency.
“Again and again, we see the evidence that our governments listen more to their corporate sponsors than to the science, the expert advice. People want a sustainable future for their friends, their families, and their communities,” Tim Crosland, director of Plan B, told DeSmog.
“We’re bringing this action in solidarity with young people everywhere and in solidarity with communities of resistance in the Global South, who in far too many cases have been sacrificing their lives,” he added. “If the wave of litigation and mobilisation becomes a tidal wave, from South to North and across the generations, then governments will have no option but to listen.”
Main Image: Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the Science Museum for Launch of the UK hosting of the 26th UN Climate Change Conference (COP26). Credit: Andrew Parsons / No10 Downing Street, CC BY–NC–ND 2.0