Judges & Climate Change

Over Christmas, I finally read Joshua Rozenberg’s 2020 book Enemies of the People? How Judges Shape Society.

The book examines the tension inevitably faced by judges in interpreting the law, particularly in areas of public controversy (constitutional issues; “right to death”; family; discrimination; religion; privacy; access to justice): when should the application of common law principles (i.e. rules developed over time by the courts through the doctrine of precedent, as to matters not resolved by legislation) and changing expectations in society as to minimum rights that we should enjoy (a question legitimised to some extent, and in relation to some issues, by principles of statutory interpretation required under the Human Rights Act) lead judges to “make” law? And can Parliament prevent the Judiciary from constraining the Executive’s actions and decision making on particular issues, by way of ouster provisions in legislation?

Rozenberg:

“Ultimately, the British constitution relies on a delicate balance between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary: all three powers of the state must demonstrate good judgment if we are to be governed under the rule of law”.

The book is also essential background to the current Faulks review of administrative law (see my 12 September 2020 blog post).

The squeals come from those on the wrong side of rulings (of course with litigation that goes with the territory) or who choose to see the issues in too simplistic terms.

Enemies of the people” was of course the infamous Daily Mail headline following the Supreme Court’s judgment in Miller (no 1). To my mind the press release by campaign group Plan B following R (Friends of the Earth Limited) v Heathrow Airport Limited (Supreme Court, 16 December 2020) was at least as bad:

“**Latest news – the Supreme Court betrays us all with its treasonous reversal of the Court of Appeal’s judgement.**

The next edition of Rozenberg’s book surely needs to include a chapter on environmental and climate change issues. The Supreme Court was not “treasonous”! It is appalling and Trumpian to suggest it.

Heathrow

I do not consider that the Supreme Court’s reversal of the Court of Appeal’s ruling – holding that at the time the Secretary of State for Transport designated the Airports National Policy Statement in June 2018 the emissions reductions targets in the Paris Agreement had not formed part of government policy on climate change – was at all unexpected. Its conclusion was based on a plain, detailed, analysis of the position as at that date. My 7 March 2020 blog post on the Court of Appeal ruling can now be consigned to the scrap heap but I did, perhaps too politely, describe the ruling as “surprising” and say that it was “not obvious to me that the Court of Appeal’s conclusions would be safe against an appeal to the Supreme Court”! The Supreme Court sided with the initial findings of Holgate J and Hickinbottom LJ, sitting as a Divisional Court, at first instance.

Planning Court liaison judge Holgate J has a central role in this developing area of case law, revolving around the application of emissions reduction targets in the Climate Change Act 2008 – both sitting alone and as part of a Divisional Court (Whilst usually High Court cases are presided over by a single judge, in particularly important or complex cases the High Court can choose to sit as a Divisional Court, with a High Court judge and a Court of Appeal judge sitting together).

HS2

Earlier in the year, Court of Appeal, in R (Packham) v Secretary of State (Court of Appeal, 31 July 2020) , upheld the first instance rejection by Holgate J and Coulson LJ (also sitting as a Divisional Court) of Chris Packham’s challenge to the Government’s decision to continue with the HS2 project following the review carried out by Douglas Oakervee.

The Court of Appeal:

“ground 3b is whether the Government erred in law by failing to take account of the effect of the project on greenhouse gas emissions between now and 2050, in the light of the Government’s obligations under the Paris Agreement and the Climate Change Act 2008.”

“In our view it is impossible to infer from the report any failure by the panel to have regard to the Government’s relevant statutory and policy commitments on climate change. And the Government did not demonstrably commit any such error in making its decision. On this point too, we agree with the Divisional Court. There is nothing to show that the Government either ignored or misunderstood the legal implications of proceeding with HS2 for its obligations relating to climate change, including those arising from the Paris Agreement and under the provisions of the Climate Change Act.”

“… the Oakervee review was not an exercise compelled, or even provided for, in any legislation relating to climate change, in any legislation relating to major infrastructure, or in any legislation at all. It finds no place in the arrangements set in place by the Climate Change Act. Nor does it belong to any other statutory scheme, such as the Planning Act, in which the consequences of major infrastructure development for climate change are explicitly provided for as a necessary feature of decision-making. The same goes for the Government’s own decision on the future of HS2.”

Drax

Following a hearing in November 2020, judgment is yet to be handed down by the Court of Appeal in ClientEarth v Secretary of State, where at first instance Holgate J rejected a challenge to the Drax power station DCO.

Horse Hill

Holgate J handed down judgment last month in another climate change case, R (Finch) v Surrey County Council (Holgate J, 21 December 2020).

This was a challenge to a planning permission granted by Surrey County Council to retain two oil wells at Horse Hill, Hookwood, Horley, Surrey and to drill four new wells, for the production of hydrocarbons over a period of 25 years.

The main issue was “whether a developer’s obligation under the Town and Country Planning (Environmental Impact Assessment) Regulations 2017 (SI 2017 No. 571) (“the 2017 Regulations”) to provide an environmental statement (“ES”) describing the likely significant effects of a development, both direct and indirect, requires an assessment of the greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions resulting from the use of an end product said to have originated from that development.” Should the environmental statement in relation to the project have assessed the greenhouse gases “that would be emitted when the crude oil produced from the site is used by consumers, typically as a fuel for motor vehicles, after having been refined elsewhere.” Was that an indirect effect of the development?

Holgate J:

The UK Government’s fundamental objective in relation to climate change is enshrined in s.1(1) of the Climate Change Act 2008 (“CCA 2008”) which, as amended with effect from 27 June 2019, imposes a duty on the Secretary of State to ensure that the net UK carbon account for 2050 is at least 100% lower than the 1990 baseline. This is generally referred to as “the net zero target“.

It goes without saying that the extraction of crude oil resulting in the supply of fuel will result in GHG emissions when that end product is used. It is common ground that that is addressed by Government policy on climate change and energy, aimed inter alia at reducing the use of hydrocarbons. The issue raised in the present challenge is whether, by virtue of the 2017 Regulations, it was necessary for the planning authority to go further than apply those policies in its decision on whether to grant planning permission for the development, by requiring those GHG emissions to be estimated and assessed as part of the Environmental Impact Assessment (“EIA”) of the development.”

“In my judgment, the fact that the environmental effects of consuming an end product will flow “inevitably” from the use of a raw material in making that product does not provide a legal test for deciding whether they can properly be treated as effects “of the development” on the site where the raw material will be produced for the purposes of exercising planning or land use control over that development. The extraction of a mineral from a site may have environmental consequences remote from that development but which are nevertheless inevitable. Instead, the true legal test is whether an effect on the environment is an effect of the development for which planning permission is sought. An inevitable consequence may occur after a raw material extracted on the relevant site has passed through one or more developments elsewhere which are not the subject of the application for planning permission and which do not form part of the same “project”.

The inevitability that the crude oil to be transported off site will eventually lead to additional GHG emissions when the end product is consumed is simply a response to the defendant’s point that when the oil leaves the site it becomes an indistinguishable part of the international oil market, so that the GHG emissions generated by combustion in vehicles cannot be attributed to any particular oil well or well site. Like the debate between the witness statements as to whether the oil produced on the site would only displace oil production elsewhere or would instead increase overall net consumption, these are forensic arguments about the market consequences of extracting oil at the site which do not address the real legal issues raised by ground 1(a).”

“Although it is not essential to my conclusions on this challenge, I should record in passing that I do not accept the proposition that there are no other measures in place within the UK for assessing and reducing GHG emissions from the combustion of oil products in motor vehicles. The measures include the net zero target in the CCA 2008, and the various matters referred to in [46] to [54] above. The overall responsibility for the economy-wide transition to a low carbon society is the responsibility of the UK Government (Packham at [87]). A range of measures is being pursued to achieve a reduction in the consumption of oil products including road pricing, taxation and future controls on the source of energy which may be used by vehicles. The object of these measures is to reduce substantially the demand for diesel and petrol from UK consumers.

The claimant fairly says that these measures do not affect the consumption of oil products by consumers in other countries. But, on the other hand, the Paris Agreement was signed by many countries throughout the world and it is the responsibility of each such country to determine its contribution to achieving the global target for 2050. Whether these issues are thought to be adequately addressed in other countries, or even in the UK, can provide no guide to the interpretation of our domestic legislation on EIA for the consenting of new development.”

“Essentially, development control and the EIA process are concerned with the use of land for development and the effects of that use. They are not directed at the environmental effects which result from the consumption, or use, of an end product, be it a manufactured article or a commodity such as oil, gas or electricity used as an energy source for conducting other human activities.”

A decision the other way clearly could have had very wide implications – a good example of the boundary between making law and interpreting it.

Campaign groups have of course long used litigation as a means of applying political pressure for change. That is a particular feature of the climate change area, with existing campaign groups such as Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and ClientEarth, now joined by the likes of Plan B, the Good Law Project and Rights : Community : Action.

NPSs

The Good Law Project had brought legal proceedings seeking to require the Government to review its energy national policy statements to reflect current climate change targets. Whether or not as a result of those proceedings, the Government has now confirmed that it will do exactly that in its Energy white paper, Powering our net zero future (14 December 2020)

“We will complete a review of the existing energy National Policy Statements (NPS), with the aim of designating updated NPS by the end of 2021.

The suite of energy NPS establish the need for new energy infrastructure and set out a framework for the consideration of applications for development consent. We have decided that it is appropriate to review the NPS, to ensure that they reflect the policies set out in this white paper and that we continue to have a planning policy framework which can deliver the investment required to build the infrastructure needed for the transition to net zero. Work on this review will start immediately, with the aim of designating updated NPS by the end of 2021.

This white paper shows that the need for the energy infrastructure set out in energy NPS remains, except in the case of coal-fired generation. While the review is undertaken, the current suite of NPS remain relevant government policy and have effect for the purposes of the Planning Act 2008. They will, therefore, continue to provide a proper basis on which the Planning Inspectorate can examine, and the Secretary of State can make decisions on, applications for development consent. Nothing in this white paper should be construed as setting a limit on the number of development consent orders which may be granted for any type of generating infrastructure set out in the energy NPS. Other restrictions outside the planning regime (in particular the Emissions Performance Standard) mean that no new coal infrastructure projects can come forward.

Following the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Heathrow case, the Good Law Project’s focus immediately turned to the Airports National Policy Statement. On 18 December 2020 a pre-action protocol letter was sent to the Secretary of State for Transport, requesting that he:

“(i) considers whether it is appropriate to review the Airports National Policy Statement on new runway capacity and infrastructure at airports in the South East of England (NPS) pursuant to section 6 of the Planning Act 2008 (PA 2008); and

(ii) considers whether it is appropriate to suspend all or part of the ANPS pursuant to section 11 of the PA 2008”

in the light, amongst other things, of “significant changes in the science and domestic policy on Climate Change” since the designation of the policy statement in June 2018. A response was requested by 18 January 2021.

In the wake of the Heathrow judgment, Plan B was reported as considering bringing a claim in the European Court of Human Rights. That would in my view be an uphill struggle, particularly at this policy setting rather than development consent stage, although of course it is interesting to see how climate change human rights law has been developing – see for example the Dutch Supreme Court judgment in the Urgenda case (the background is set out in my 28 September 2019 blog post Urgent Agenda/Urgenda written after the Dutch Court of Appeal’s ruling in that case, upheld by the Dutch Supreme Court). Based on articles 2 and 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the court ordered that the state was to reduce greenhouse gases by the end of 2020 by at least 25% compared to 1990.

The Bingham road-map

I’ll end by quoting again from Rozenberg’s book, where he sets out Lord Bingham’s “road-map” of warning signs which should be heeded by judges who are considering making new law:

1. where reasonable and right-minded citizens have legitimately ordered their affairs on the basis of a certain understanding of the law;

2. where, although a rule of law is seen to be defective, its amendment calls for a detailed legislative code, with qualifications, exceptions and safeguards which cannot feasibly be introduced by judicial decisions;

3. where the question involves an issue of current social policy on which there is no consensus within the community;

4. where an issue is the subject of current legislative activity;

5. where the issue arises in a field far removed from ordinary judicial experience.

Discuss!

Simon Ricketts, 9 January 2021

Personal views, et cetera

Author: simonicity

Partner at boutique planning law firm, Town Legal LLP, but this blog represents my personal views only.

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