On January 30, 2020, the environmental group ClientEarth filed an action in the High Court challenging the UK government's decision to approve a natural gas plant, which would be Europe's largest.
The Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy approved the plant in October, despite the Planning Authority's recommendation that the plant be blocked due to climate change considerations. According to a press release issued by a barristers union, the complaint alleges, among other things, that the Secretary misinterpreted the Overarching National Policy Statement for Energy in assessing the project's greenhouse gas emissions; failed to properly assess the carbon-capture readiness of the facility; and did not consider the UK's mandate to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 in a procedurally fair manner or, alternatively, failed to give adequate reasons for her assessment of the net zero target. The High Court gave ClientEarth permission to sue the government.
The High Court ruled for the defendants on May 22, 2020. The judge determined that the case involved policy questions requiring a balancing of interests, and that other public interests weigh against the UK's climate goals and for the plant's approval. These include the plant's contribution to security and diversity of energy supply. On July 21, 2020 the Court of Appeal granted ClientEarth leave to appeal the case.
On January 21, 2021, the Court of Appeal upheld the High Court's decision and rejected ClientEarth's appeal, finding that the government's approval of the plant was lawful. The Court of Appeal found that the Secretary of State balanced the adverse effects of the project, including greenhouse gas emissions, with the positive effects, including socioeconomic outcomes and re-use of existing infrastructure, and lawfully concluded that the benefits outweighed the adverse impacts. The Court of Appeal departed from the High Court in reasoning that greenhouse gas emissions are capable of being treated as "a freestanding reason for refusal" by the Secretary. Nevertheless, the Court reasoned that such emissions are not an "automatic and insuperable obstacle" to approval of infrastructure projects, and the decision-maker has discretion over the weight to assign to greenhouse gas emissions in approval decisions.