Horse Hill appeal is start of climate emergency road

An example of an oil drilling rig

Just how hard is it to translate declaring a climate emergency into meaningful policy? This is one crux of a planning appeal, led by local campaigner Sarah Finch, heard this week. It is against Surrey County Council’s decision to grant planning permission for a company to drill for oil for 20 years at Horse Hill.

Some local authorities still find it hard to declare a climate emergency, as the Government did in one of Theresa May’s final acts as Prime Minister. For example, Reigate and Banstead Borough Council stopped short of joining the 1,400 authorities in 28 countries to have done so. However, they have come up with a climate action plan.

Waverley Borough Council, by contrast, declared the emergency, but only afterwards set about deciding their action plan. Their public consultation only finished in the past few weeks.

It has been argued that it is facile to declare a climate emergency without having a plan to address the issue. It’s a fair point. You can’t just wave placards at a protest, or chant a headline slogan, without having an clear idea of what you want to achieve.

But, as Surrey County Council found this summer, it is extremely difficult to make one of your “values” (ie declaring a climate emergency) meaningful if the law stands in your way. It was clear from councillors’ discussions that they wanted to deny UK Oil and Gas (UKOG) permission to drill for oil at Dunsfold. But they struggled to find justification within planning law. They knew that “we’ve declared a climate emergency” just wouldn’t cut it. UKOG have appealed the rejection of planning permission and the case will be heard by a planning inspector later this month.

UKOG are also defending their position over Horse Hill, at the judicial review brought by Ms Finch which took place yesterday and today.

One central point is whether the councillors considered the wider greenhouse gas emissions. Not just any that UGOC were creating directly in drilling and removing oil. Did the councillor consider the ultimate use of that oil? Did their environment assessment presented to them by their officer cover this? Did it have to be, in law? The SCC granted permission for drilling last September, two months after the authority followed the Government’s lead and declared a climate emergency.

There would be billions of tonnes of oil extracted from Horse Hill. The argument goes, shouldn’t the ultimate carbon emissions usage have been taken into account by the planning authority? These are “indirect effects” as far as the oil driller is concerned. About 10.6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide would be produced if it was all turned to usable fuel. The defence’s case is that this isn’t something they can estimate – or should need to.

A key question the Judicial Review is looking at is whether councillors had such evidence before them when making the decision. And whether they should judge the wider effects of carbon emissions, beyond the applicant’s. If it is the case that they should consider the wider implications of a applicant’s business, this has far reaching consequences for planning law.

The hearing shone a light on the limits of a local authority’s abilities to address climate change. If they are directed by planning law, are they hamstrung? If planning authorities are restricted in assessing greenhouse gases created only on the land in question – rather than the obvious, wider carbon emissions – how can they play their part in tackling wider polluting effects? And if they can’t do that, how can help tackle those polluting effects – that is, the climate emissions?

This case goes to the heart of the Government’s direction – and seriousness – on climate change. It allows new oil drilling sites. Thus it allows carbon emissions. As the polluting regulator, the Government is trying to reduce them. Are local authorities just supposed to shrug their shoulders and say ‘pollution is the regulator’s problem’? And if they do, how can they square that with declaring a climate emergency? The aims of the two bodies must be aligned.

Just how serious the Government is about its declaration of a Climate Emergency, and setting of net zero targets, is coming to the boil. Late on Tuesday, the much-anticipated 10-point environment plan was announced working towards net zero carbon emissions.

Another court case could show the Government’s hand, too. Heathrow’s plans to expand to a third runway were unlawfully approved by the Government, the Court of Appeal has found. The judgement said, among other reasons, the original decision contravened Government commitments to the Paris Agreement to reduce carbon emissions. That quotes a wider impact – not just to the runway and the land – that the application would have on the world. The airport has lodged a further appeal and the outcome is expected in January. Without political will, the expansion seems unlikely to happen, according to some pundits. Mr Johnson once promised to lie in front of the bulldozers should the plan ever happen. Mr Justice Holgate suggested that his own decision might have to wait until after that decision.

One of the big problems with flying is that international aviation emissions are not counted against any nation’s carbon targets. It is a paradox, if global action against climate change cannot include this obvious problem in its calculations. This is something for COP26 next year to address, perhaps.

With many people struggling for money right now – and working more remotely – the Government could save a lot of expenditure by cancelling the HS2 rail extension. The ultimate estimated cost is £80billion. It could also rethink the scheme to build a tunnel under Stonehenge. Another £1.6billion. Widening part of the A303 to two lanes where needed would surely cost far less. The decision on whether this will go ahead has been delayed another year because of difficulties in gaining planning permission – from the Government.

The Horse Hill judgement could have huge consequences for similar planning applications nationwide. We, in the UK, are only at the embryonic stage of shaping the policies within that climate emergency declaration – and the push to reach net zero emission targets, whether by 2030 or 2050. It is cases such as Horse Hill that will help us decide how serious we are about reaching those targets.