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ClientEarth Communications

7th October 2019

Climate accountability

Drax decision: the UK government’s carbon budget blowout, or a stranded asset in waiting?

Update: Drax legal case: We’re taking the UK government to court over Europe’s largest gas plant

We are looking at all legal avenues available following the government’s decision to greenlight a major new fossil-fuel burning power plant at Selby in North Yorkshire.

What has happened?

Late last Friday, it was revealed that the UK government had overruled a recommendation by its planning authority, which had blocked a controversial new large-scale gas power plant on climate change grounds.

The Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Andrea Leadsom, has pushed through plans for Drax Power to install four new gas turbines at its Selby plant.

ClientEarth and Drax – what’s our involvement?

Our climate accountability team has been following Drax’s plans closely. Last November, we objected to Drax’s planning application, on climate grounds.
We were then invited to provide an assessment of the climate impact of the proposal as part of Planning Inspectorate’s hearings discussing objections to the project.

Our intervention came just weeks after the historic report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) detailed the drastic carbon emission reductions needed to ensure the planet keeps global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Now that Andrea Leadsom has decided to overrule the government’s own planning authority, our team is looking at additional approaches to protecting our future from this unnecessary polluter.

Does the UK need more gas?

No. The government’s own forecasts published earlier this year show that the UK does not need a major roll out of new large-scale gas generation capacity. There is evidence that even those low forecasts overestimate the real level of need. But they also compromise the UK’s ability to meet its decarbonisation targets.

The government estimates the UK will need 6GW of new gas generation through to 2035. However the UK has already greenlit more than 15GW worth of large-scale gas plants. Approving Drax’s project would take this to 18GW – three times the government’s estimates.

Sam Hunter-Jones is a lawyer on our climate accountability team. He says: “By failing to explain how this emissions-intensive gas project squares with the UK’s carbon targets and its Clean Growth Strategy, Drax is asking the public to face a carbon budget blowout, a huge stranded asset requiring propping up by the taxpayer, or a combination of the two.”

What are our arguments? The detail…

Sam explains that, over its lifetime, the project could create additional greenhouse gas emissions 400% greater than the baseline scenario. This scenario tracks forecasts from the department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy of overall grid emissions intensity to 2050 and represents the mix of generation technologies that could provide the same quantity of electricity generation.

With the UK’s coal phase-out planned for 2025, the coal-fired units stand to be decommissioned if the proposed gas conversion does not take place. The proposed gas conversion therefore threatens to lock the UK into unnecessary high-carbon power. This was supported by analysis from energy policy experts Sandbag as well as the government’s own projections.

Why is it a matter for planning?

Drax’s proposal is considered a nationally significant infrastructure project under the 2008 Planning Act. As such the plan must comply with the relevant national policy statements and the requirement in the Act that a project’s adverse climate impacts do not outweigh its benefits.
Andrea Leadsom’s decision flies in the face of the government’s established decarbonisation strategy and the expertise of its own planning authority.

Drax gas plans - What happens next?

We are exploring the legal options open to us. We remain committed to holding governments to account on their climate commitments, to create healthier future for everyone.