11:22, May 22 239 0 theguardian.com

2020-05-22 11:22:04
UK approval for biggest gas power station in Europe ruled legal

The UK government’s approval of a large new gas-fired power plant has been ruled legal by the high court. The legal challenge was brought after ministers had overruled the climate change objections of the country’s own planning authority.

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 the environmental 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 case could now go to appeal.

The UK government’s actions to tackle the climate emergency are under particular scrutiny at the moment, as it will host a critical UN summit in early 2021. At the meeting, the world’s nations must 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.

Drax said previously that the company’s ambition was to be removing, not adding, carbon to the atmosphere by 2030. It would do this by burning wood or plants and then capturing and storing the emissions. The carbon negative ambition could be achieved alongside “new, high efficiency gas power capacity”, the company said, with the proposed plant “capable” of having carbon capture technology fitted in the future.

ClientEarth had argued 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 legal group have 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.”

This year there has 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 like 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.