Georgia Elliott-Smith, managing director of environmental consultancy Element Four, has had her groundbreaking case on carbon emissions heard in the High Court last week, as part of a drive to promote competitiveness and make sustainable business choices the norm.

The case concerns the volume of carbon emissions permitted by industry and the exclusion of waste incinerators from the UK’s new emissions trading scheme (ETS). Elliott-Smith is represented by Leigh Day solicitors, as well as David Wolfe QC at Matrix chambers and Ben Mitchell at 11KBW chambers.

Element Four helps its clients flourish in the green economy and Elliott Smith’s case centres around the Climate Change Act 2008 which grants the government power to set up a cap and trading scheme for the express purpose of limiting greenhouse gas emissions. However, in designing the UK ETS, the government set the emissions cap far higher than current business-as-usual levels in order to alleviate pressures on industry and smooth the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. Elliott-Smith argues that this is an improper use of the Act and will fail to meaningfully reduce carbon emissions.

Crucially, this is a pro-business stance with the objective of supporting forward-thinking firms to operate in a more sustainable way, responding to the Paris Agreement which demands action now. Element Four is currently working with a principal contractor, a large furniture manufacturer, an asset management company and a large retail brand to produce clear and concise, science-based targets that will ensure these companies will deliver in-line with the Paris Agreement, which is the obligation of all businesses.

Elliott-Smith explains, “Unfortunately at the moment, weak government legislation and lack of effective carbon pricing financially penalises businesses that try to do the right thing by acting

sustainably and cutting emissions. The only way to create a level playing field is for the government to implement effective carbon reduction fiscal instruments and policies, which allow industry to invest in innovation to quickly and effectively decarbonise.”

This then eliminates the cost premium currently associated with green business choices and makes these decisions competitive, market-based solutions. This is particularly pertinent for the construction industry, given its C02 contribution globally, which accounts for 38% of emissions in 2019, according to a report published by the United Nations Environment Programme.

Elliott-Smith goes on to say that the governments of the United Kingdom did not consider the short and medium-term aspects of the UK’s obligations under the Paris Agreement, which requires substantial and immediate emission reductions, not just net zero by 2050. Given that the International Energy Agency has recently warned that carbon emissions in 2021 are set to increase by the second biggest annual rise ever as a result of increased fossil fuel usage as part of the Covid-19 economic recovery, time is of the essence.

Elliott-Smith says, “In its current form, it could take nine years before the UK emissions trading scheme reduces carbon emissions by a single gram. In omitting major polluters and setting allowances well above business-as-usual levels, the government has failed to meet its Paris Agreement commitments. We are saying to them: you must act now to prevent further emissions.”

Leigh Day solicitor Rowan Smith adds: “Our client’s legal case is extremely timely, given all eyes are on the UK government to set an ambitious example at the COP26 climate change conference scheduled for the end of this year. Her arguments are clear: a scheme set up without proper consideration of either the need to apply downward pressure on emissions, or the nearer-term aspirations of the Paris Agreement, is unlawful and should be redesigned.”