A legal bid challenging the UK government’s approval of a new gas-fired power plant has failed in the court of appeal.
The challenge was brought after ministers overruled climate change objections from the planning authority. The plant is being developed by Drax in North Yorkshire and would be the biggest gas power station in Europe. It could account for 75% of the UK’s power sector emissions when fully operational, according to lawyers for ClientEarth, which brought the judicial review.
In 2019, the planning inspectorate recommended that ministers refuse permission for the 3.6GW gas plant because it “would undermine the government’s commitment, as set out in the Climate Change Act 2008, to cut greenhouse emissions” by having “significant adverse effects”.
However, Andrea Leadsom, who was secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy at the time of the planning application, rejected the advice and gave the go-ahead in October 2019. The high court rejected ClientEarth’s initial legal challenge in May 2020.
The UK is under international scrutiny as it prepares to host a major UN climate summit in November. The UK has cut its carbon emissions by 41% since 1990 and in 2019 was the first major economy to put in law a commitment to net zero emissions by 2050. Prime minister Boris Johnson produced a plan for a “green industrial revolution” in November.
But the government has been criticised recently for failing to stop a new coal mine in Cumbria, which it said was a local issue. This comment was derided by campaigners against global heating and MPs warned it undermined the summit. Another smaller gas plant is under construction by SSE in Lincolnshire.
The government has also been criticised for giving billions of pounds of financial support to a major fossil fuel projects overseas, including a gas project in Mozambique, But Johnson said in December this would end with “very limited exceptions”. A third runway at Heathrow, which campaigners say is incompatible with climate action, is also still due to be built.
A Drax spokesman said: “Drax Power Station plays a vital role in the UK’s energy system, generating reliable electricity for millions of homes and businesses.” He said the company aims to be capturing more carbon dioxide than it emits by 2030 by burning plants or wood in other power stations and burying the emissions.
But he said the gas plant was not certain to go ahead because it depends on investment decisions by Drax and the project securing a capacity market contract from the government, which is a payment for ensuring the security of electricity supply.
“The climate and business case for large-scale gas power has only got worse since the Planning Inspectorate recommended Drax’s proposals be refused permission,” said ClientEarth lawyer Sam Hunter Jones. “The UK Climate Change Committee says that to get to net zero the UK needs a completely decarbonised power system by 2035 – that’s more than 15 years before the end of this project’s expected operating life.”
Hunter Jones said the ruling did overturn the High Court’s finding that major UK energy projects cannot be rejected on climate change grounds: “Decision-makers must now stop hiding behind planning policy to justify business-as-usual approvals of highly polluting projects.” ClientEarth said it will not take the Drax case to the Supreme Court.
“This legal defeat is yet another failure of climate leadership from the UK government ahead of a crucial UN climate summit,” said Doug Parr, director of policy at Greenpeace. “Ministers are behaving like someone trying to galvanise a pacifist rally by waving a machine gun.”
“The government must U-turn and halt climate-wrecking projects, while the onus is also on Drax to do the right thing and take this project off the table,” he said.
The government has also been criticised for giving billions of pounds of financial support to a major fossil fuel projects overseas, including a gas project in Mozambique, But prime minister Boris Johnson said in December this would end with “very limited exceptions”. A third runway at Heathrow, which campaigners say is incompatible with climate action, is also still on track to be built.
There have been a series of legal actions in the last year against polluting infrastructure projects on climate grounds. The Good Law Project is pursuing a legal action over decade-old energy policies that it said the government was using to approve fossil fuel projects. A legal challenge by Transport Action Network aims to prevent billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money being spent on a huge road-building programme.
The Department of Business, Enterprise and Industrial Strategy has been contacted for comment.