Friends of the Earth v. UK Export Finance
Jurisdiction: High Court of Justice, Queen's Bench Division
Principle law(s): Climate Change Act
Side A: Friends of the Earth
Side B: UK Export Finance
Core objectives: Whether the UK government's decision to provide financing to a liquid natural gas project in Mozambique violated climate commitments
In September 2020, Friends of the Earth England Wales and Northern Ireland (“FoE EWNI”) brought a legal challenge against UK Export Finance’s decision (the “Decision”) to provide over $1 billion of UK taxpayers’ money to help finance a liquefied natural gas (LNG) project off the coast of Mozambique. Through the project, the energy company Total (an interested party) aims to extract 43 million tonnes of LNG per year for 32 years. This will result in total combustion emissions of 4.3 billion tonnes of CO2e; more than the total annual emissions for all 27 countries within the EU.
This case is not concerned with whether, or the extent to which, the UK government should have considered the Paris Agreement in reaching its decision. Rather, it is concerned with whether, having concluded that both the project and its financing were compatible with the UK and Mozambique’s obligations under the Agreement, and having taken the decision on that basis, the decision was lawful.
The claim was heard in December 2021, with judgment reserved. At the hearing FoE EWNI argued the Decision was unlawful on the following grounds:
1. Error of law: the defendants took their decision on the basis that the project and its financing were compatible with the UK and Mozambique’s obligations under the PA. That was an error of law because the financing of the project:
a. was not consistent with a pathway to low greenhouse gas emissions and climate resilient development, as required by Articles 2(1)(c) and 3(1); and
b. undermines Mozambique in achieving its nationally determined contribution, contrary to the UK’s obligation to support developing country parties to achieve: Articles 2(1)(c), 3, Articles 4(1)(3) (5), 9, 10(6), 11(3) and 13.
2. Failure to take account of essential relevant considerations: the defendants committed multiple breaches, including:
a. failure to quantify scope 3 emissions
b. failure to assess climate impacts by reference to carbon budgets and pathways aligned with the PA and failure to consider the UNEP Production Gap Report
c. unlawful reliance on climate assessments which: i. assessed by reference to a 2oC not a 1.5oC pathway, and ii. concluded, without any basis, that emissions would be reduced because they would displace higher emitting fuels
d. erroneous quantification of scope 1 emissions
e. failure to properly consider lock in, and
f. failure to properly determine the risks of stranded assets.
FoE EWNI sought: a declaration that the Decision was reached on the basis of an erroneous understanding that the Project and its financing were compatible with the UK’s obligation under the PA; and an order quashing the Decision. On March 15, 2022, the High Court issued a judgement with a split two-judge court. One of the judges ruled: (a) the government acted unlawfully in deciding to finance the Project, as it had ‘no rational basis’ to conclude financing the project was consistent with article 2(1)(c) of the Paris Agreement; (b) government ministers approving the deal were misled; and (c) for finance flows to be aligned to the Paris Agreement, they must be demonstrably aligned with the Agreement’s temperature goal of limiting global heating to 1.5 degrees. The second judge ruled the decision was lawful. He held the court should give the government a large amount of latitude in deciding for itself what enquiry to make, for example when quantifying climate impacts, and that the court should only scrutinise the government’s decision lightly.
The High Court decided to dismiss the claim, whilst at the same time granting FoE permission to appeal. The claim will now be heard by the Court of Appeal. The appeal hearing has not yet been fixed but it is expected to take place either late 2022 or early 2023.
Related laws and policies
The Act provides a long-term framework to improve carbon management, to help the transition to a low carbon economy, encourage investment in low carbon goods and provide an international signal. The Act establishes a legally binding target for the UK to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net z...