UK road-building scheme breaches climate commitments, high court told

Transport Action Network says £27bn programme does not take account of Paris climate agreement

The government’s plans for a multibillion pound road-building scheme would breach the UK’s legal commitments to tackle the climate crisis and critically undermine the country’s standing ahead of a key summit later this year, the high court has heard.

Lawyers acting for the Transport Action Network (TAN) argued that plans for the UK’s huge £27bn road building programme – set out in its Road Investment Strategy 2 (RIS2) last year – did not take into account the government’s obligations to reach net zero emissions by 2050 or its commitments under the Paris climate agreement.

Campaigners accuse the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, and the Department for Transport of unlawfully failing to take account of the “obviously material” impact of the roads programme on the UK’s climate commitments.

Before the hearing on Tuesday Chris Todd, director of TAN, described the proceedings as the “biggest legal challenge to transport policy in British history.”.

“If we are serious about tackling the climate emergency, improving quality of life after the pandemic and delivering a less congested future, we need to reduce traffic … A ruling to quash the largest ever roads programme would be historic, not just for the UK, but for communities worldwide seeking to build back better in the run up to Cop26.”

David Wolfe QC, for TAN, said: “Unless and until all road vehicles, their manufacture and servicing, the power generated to propel them … are all zero-emission … an increase in road traffic means an increase in greenhouse gas emissions … The secretary of state needed to grapple with that. He could not just ignore it, as he did.”

But the government disputes the claim. John Litton QC, for the DfT, said the government had given “full and proper regard to the environment when setting RIS2, including to climate change-related impacts … and carbon emissions in particular, consistent with the government’s climate change responsibilities.”

He said there was no commitment to reach “zero carbon” in every sector of the economy, saying some parts would still emit carbon but would be offset by “sinks” like tree planting or, currently unproven, carbon capture technology.

“The objective is not to look for zero emissions across all sectors but to reach a balance between emissions and sinks,” he added.

The road-building programme would lead to thousands of miles of new roads across the country in the coming years which campaigners fear would wreck havoc on the UK’s beleaguered wildlife, worsen air pollution and lock in a high carbon transport network for decades to come.

If it goes ahead the plans include at least 50 projects, from a tunnel on the A303 near Stonehenge to a Lower Thames Crossing linking Kent and Essex.

The UK government has been widely criticised for failing to set out any detailed plans for how it will reach its climate targets. Last week the Committee on Climate Change said progress had been “illusory” adding that “investment in roads should be contingent on analysis justifying how they contribute to the UK’s pathway to net zero”.

Experts say the UK’s road network and its wider transport infrastructure are crucial in the country’s efforts to avoid the worst effects of the climate crisis. The transport sector is one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases and the only one to have increased its emissions in recent years.

Earlier this month the Welsh government announced a freeze on its future road building as part of its plans to tackle the climate emergency

The case at the high court is due to conclude on Wednesday with judgment expected to be given at a later date.


Matthew Taylor

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Expansion of English airports could threaten climate commitments – report
Impact on climate of expansion plans at regional airports has been underestimated, report finds

Matthew Taylor

20, May, 2021 @11:01 PM

Article image
Welsh road building projects stopped after failing climate review
Only 15 schemes reassessed by expert roads review panel under ‘world-leading’ policy will go ahead

Steven Morris

14, Feb, 2023 @4:12 PM

Article image
Road-building spree will derail UK’s net zero targets, warn campaigners
Hybrid vehicle pollution and van traffic update adds 26 megatonnes of carbon emissions to Department for Transport decarbonisation plan

Helena Horton Environment reporter

12, Apr, 2023 @5:00 AM

Article image
Stonehenge road tunnel go-ahead unlawful, high court told
Judicial review hears Grant Shapps did not properly consider damage to ancient sites and artefacts

Steven Morris

23, Jun, 2021 @9:34 AM

Article image
Plan to expand Bristol airport rejected after climate protests
Councillors vote against plan endorsed by North Somerset council officers in decision hailed as ‘historic’

Steven Morris

11, Feb, 2020 @8:10 AM

Article image
Scottish minister warns of climate challenge after Stonehaven crash
Concerns over rise in extreme weather as tributes paid to three victims of train derailment

Libby Brooks and Gwyn Topham

13, Aug, 2020 @6:43 PM

Article image
Multimillion-pound UK road scheme facing legal action on climate grounds
Campaigners say DfT was wrong to only assess emissions against national carbon budget

Isabella Kaminski

13, Oct, 2022 @10:25 AM

Article image
Wales scraps £1.4bn Gwent Levels M4 relief road scheme
Environmentalists welcome move but business leaders and Tories criticise decision

Steven Morris

04, Jun, 2019 @1:22 PM

Article image
Stonehenge tunnel plans continue despite high court ruling
Highways England says it is proceeding with £1.7bn scheme after judge declared it unlawful

Miranda Bryant and Steven Morris

04, Aug, 2021 @5:16 PM

Article image
Campaigners say UK airport expansion plans must be suspended amid new climate goals
In letter to ministers, groups say aviation strategy needed after sector included in binding climate targets

Matthew Taylor

10, May, 2021 @10:42 AM