If you have goals to hit net zero emissions — you probably shouldn’t expand your biggest airport, build a new coal mine, or develop plans to build the biggest gas power plant in Europe.
But, following a Court of Appeal rejection of a legal bid to stop the project on Thursday, the UK is pushing forward with plans to do just that — despite criticism of the message it sends on climate leadership.
The new power plant in question is being developed in North Yorkshire by Drax, and, when up and running, it could reportedly account for 75% of the UK’s power sector emissions.
When the plant was first proposed in 2019, the Planning Inspectorate — a government agency that offers advice on projects just like this — urged that ministers refuse permission. The Guardian reports that it suggested the “significant adverse effects” would undermine UK targets to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases as outlined in the 2008 Climate Change Act.
But Andrea Leadsom — the secretary of state for business, energy, and industrial strategy (BEIS) who had the authority to reject the plans at the time, and who famously asked “if climate change was real” when she was first given the job — gave the project the not-so-green light in October 2019.
A legal challenge stumbled at the first hurdle in May 2020 when ClientEarth, an environmental charity that uses the legal system to fight the climate crisis, took the plans to the High Court. And, after its bid at the Court of Appeal, the climate group has said it won't now take it to the Supreme Court.
“The UK government must stop hiding behind planning policy to justify business-as-usual approvals of highly polluting projects,” said Sam Hunter Jones, a lawyer for ClientEarth. “It needs to engage with reality and own the decisions that could make or break our long-term climate targets.”
Breaking: UK Court of Appeal decides Drax can still build Europe's largest gas plant if it wants to.— ClientEarth (@ClientEarth) January 21, 2021
But ruling sets important precedents:
•Major energy projects can be rejected on climate change grounds
•The Govt must consider carbon lock-in risks of each new project
The decision is perhaps particularly controversial ahead of COP26 — the biggest climate conference since the Paris Agreement, which is being hosted by the UK government in Glasgow, Scotland, at the end of this year.
It’s quite clear that the UK wants to appear to be leading by example. In December 2020, the government hosted an intermediary event called the Climate Ambition Summit, announcing a more ambitious emissions reduction target that would cut greenhouse gases by 68% compared to 1990 levels by 2030.
But climate activists have insisted that ambitious targets must be backed by firm action.
“This is yet another failure of climate leadership from the UK government ahead of a crucial UN climate summit,” said Doug Parr, Greenpeace UK’s director of policy. “Ministers are behaving like someone trying to galvanise a pacifist rally by waving a machine gun.”
He continued: “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.”
The government, however, insists that this project will not detract from the overarching plan.
“We welcome the Court of Appeal’s ruling,” a spokesperson from BEIS said. “As we transition to net zero emissions by 2050, our record levels of investment in renewables will meet a large part of the energy demand.”
The statement added: “However, natural gas will still provide a reliable source of energy while we develop and deploy low carbon alternatives.”