Our legal action against the government aims
to shut down fossil fuels
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 4th
Our survival is not an afterthought. The
defence of the living planet cannot be tacked retrospectively onto business as
usual. Yet this is how almost all governments operate. They slap the word
“sustainable” on damaging projects they have already approved, then insist this
means they’ve gone green. If we are to survive and prosper, everything must
change. Every decision should begin with the question of what the planet can
This means that any discussion about new
infrastructure should begin with ecological constraints. The figures are stark.
A paper published
in Nature last year showed that existing energy
infrastructure, if it is allowed to run to the end of its natural life, will
produce around 660 gigatonnes of CO2. Yet, to stand a reasonable chance of
preventing more than 1.5°C of global heating, we can afford to release, in
total, no more than 580 gigatonnes. In other words, far from building new
fossil power plants, the survival of a habitable planet means retiring the
damaging projects that have already been built. Electricity plants burning coal
and gas and oil will not secure our prosperity. They will destroy it.
But everywhere special interests dominate.
Construction projects are driven, above all, by the lobbying of the
construction industry, consultancies and financiers. Gigantic and destructive
schemes, such as the Oxford-Cambridge
Expressway, are invented by lobbyists for the
purpose of generating contracts. Political support is drummed up, the project
achieves its own momentum, then, belatedly, a feeble attempt is made to
demonstrate that it can somehow become compatible with environmental promises.
This is what destroys
civilisations: a mismatch between the greed of
economic elites and the needs of society.
But last week, something momentous happened.
The decision to build a scheme with vast financial backing and terrible
environmental impacts was struck down by the Court of Appeal. The judges
decided that government policy, on which planning permission for a third runway
at Heathrow was based, had failed to take account of the UK’s climate
commitments, and was therefore
unlawful. This is – or should be – the end of
business as usual.
The Heathrow decision stands as a massive and
crucial precedent. Now we must use it to insist that governments everywhere put
our survival first, and the demands of corporate lobbyists last. To this end, with the Good Law Project and Dale Vince, the founder of
Ecotricity, I’m pursuing a similar
claim. In this
case, we are challenging the UK government’s policy for approving new energy
On Tuesday, we delivered a “letter before action”
to the Treasury solicitor. We’ve given the government 21 days to accept our
case and change its policy to reflect the climate commitments agreed by
Parliament. If it fails to do so, we
shall issue proceedings in the High Court to have the policy declared unlawful.
We’ll need money, so we’ve launched a crowdfunding appeal to finance the action.
It’s hard to see
how the government could resist our case. The Heathrow
judgement hung on the government’s national
policy statement on airports. This,
the judges found, had not been updated to take account of the Paris climate
agreement. New fossil fuel plants, such as the gas burners at Drax in Yorkshire
the government approved last October, are enabled by something very similar:
policy statements on energy infrastructure. These
have not been updated since they were published in 2011. As a result, they take
no account of the Paris agreement, of the government’s new climate target (net zero
by 2050, as opposed to an 80% cut) or of Parliament’s declaration of a climate
emergency. The main
policy statement says that
the European Emissions Trading System “forms the cornerstone of UK action to
reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector”. As we have left the EU,
this, obviously, no longer holds. The planning act obliges
the government to review its national policy
statements when circumstances change. It has failed to do so. It is
disregarding its own laws.
policy statements create a presumption in favour of
new fossil fuel plants. Once a national policy statement has been published,
there is little objectors can do to prevent damaging projects from going ahead.
In approving the Drax plant, the secretary of state for business and energy at
the time (Andrea Leadsom) insisted that the policy statement came first, regardless
of the climate impacts. Catastrophic decisions like this
will continue to be made until the statements change. They are incompatible
with either the government’s new climate commitments or a habitable planet.
While we are challenging the government’s energy
policies, another group – the Transport Action Network – is about to challenge
its road building schemes on the same
basis. It points out that
policy statement on road networks is also
outdated and incompatible with the UK’s climate commitments. The policy
statement, astonishingly, insists that “any increase in
carbon emissions is not a reason to refuse development consent“, unless the
increase is so great that the road would prevent the government from meeting
its national targets. No single road project can be disqualified on these
grounds. But the cumulative effect of new road building ensures that the UK
will inevitably bust its carbon targets. While carbon emissions are officially
disregarded, minuscule time savings are used to justify massive and damaging
Transport emissions have been
rising for the past five
years, partly because of road building. The government tries to justify its
schemes by claiming that cars will use less fossil fuel. But because they are
becoming bigger and heavier, new cars sold in the UK now produce more
carbon dioxide per kilometre than
The perverse and outdated national policy statement
locks into place such damaging projects as the A303 works around Stonehenge,
the A27 Arundel scheme, the Lower Thames crossing, the Port of Liverpool access
road, the Silvertown tunnel in London and the Wensum Link road in Norfolk. A
government seeking to protect the lives of current and future generations would
immediately strike down the policy that supports these projects, and replace it
with one that emphasised walking, cycling and public transport.
A third action has been launched by Chris Packham and the law firm Leigh Day,challenging HS2 on similar grounds. Its carbon emissions were not
properly taken into account, and its environmental impacts were assessed before
the government signed the Paris agreement.
Already, the Heathrow decision is resonating around the world. Now we need to drive its implications home, by suing for survival. If we can oblige governments to resist the demands of corporate lobbyists and put life before profit, humanity might just stand a chance.