The UK government’s approval of a large new gas-fired power plant has been ruled legal by the high court. A legal challenge was brought after ministers overruled climate change objections from planning authorities.
The plant, which is being developed by Drax in North Yorkshire, would be the biggest gas power station in Europe, and could account for 75% of the UK’s power sector emissions when fully operational, according to lawyers for ClientEarth, which brought the judicial review.
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”.
It was the first big project rejected by planners because of the climate crisis. 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.
The government’s actions to tackle the climate emergency are under particular scrutiny at the moment as the UK will host a UN summit in early 2021. At the meeting, nations will need to dramatically increase their pledges to cut carbon emissions to avoid a disastrous 3-4C rise in global temperatures. For the summit to be successful, experts say, the host nation needs to take a leadership role at home.
Sam Hunter Jones, a lawyer at ClientEarth, said: “We’re very dissatisfied by today’s judgment, rejecting our arguments against the lawfulness of the government’s decision and of its approach to assessing the project’s carbon lock-in risk. We will consider an appeal.”
A Drax spokeswoman said: “Drax power station plays a vital role in the UK’s energy system, generating reliable, flexible electricity for millions of homes and businesses. The development of new high-efficiency gas power would support the UK’s decarbonising energy system.”
She said the company’s ambition was to remove, not add, carbon to the atmosphere by 2030. It would do this by burning wood or plants and then capturing and storing the emissions. The gas plant is capable of having carbon capture technology fitted in the future, the company says.
John Sauven, the head of Greenpeace UK, said: “Building new gas-fired power stations when the UK has a net zero carbon target is hardly showing climate leadership. It also makes little economic sense. The costs are already higher than for renewable options like wind and solar. Investing money to increase pollution may still be legal but it’s no longer defensible.”
ClientEarth argued that the combination of the project’s large scale, level of emissions and long operating life made it a significant threat to the UK’s carbon targets. The group has previously inflicted three defeats on ministers over their failure to tackle air pollution.
The planning inspectorate concluded that wind and solar power would cut energy bills for consumers, while the proposed gas plant would not. “Both [Drax] and [National Grid] confirmed that it is the production of renewable plants that will deliver cheaper energy,” it said.
This year there have been a series of legal actions against polluting infrastructure projects on climate grounds. Last week the Good Law Project launched a legal action over decade-old energy policies that it said the government was using to approve fossil fuel projects such as Drax’s gas plant, even after ministers had pledged to cut UK carbon emissions to net zero by 2050.
In April, Transport Action Network launched a legal challenge to try to prevent billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money being spent on a huge road-building programme, which it said breached the UK’s legal commitments to tackle the climate crisis and air pollution.
In February the court of appeal ruled that plans for a third runway at Heathrow airport were illegal because ministers did not adequately take into account the government’s climate commitments. This was the first major ruling in the world to be based on the 2015 Paris climate change agreement. Heathrow is seeking to overturn this decision in the supreme court.
A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said: “We welcome the high court’s ruling issued today which supports the secretary of state’s decision to grant consent for the Drax repowering project. We are going further and faster than any other major economy in taking action on climate change.
“As we transition to net zero emissions in 2050, natural gas can provide a reliable source of energy while our world class renewables sector continues to grow, supported by record levels of investment.”
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