November 8, 2023

UK Government faces legal challenge over ‘irrational’ climate plans

Environmental groups are today taking the UK government to court over ‘irrational’ plans to spend billions on new technology that relies on logging and burning trees for energy, then storing the carbon pollution belowground.  The groups allege the government is fundamentally misrepresenting the dangers of the technology, known as biomass energy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS).

The legal proceedings are being filed by The Lifescape Project and The Partnership for Policy Integrity, working jointly as the Forest Litigation Collaborative. [The legal team behind the claim is comprised of  barristers Jessica King KC   and Ava Mayer of Blackstone chambers and Peter Lockley of 11 KBW chambers.  l Law firm Leigh Day acted as solicitors.].

The UK imports wood pellets from the United States, Canada, and a number of European countries. NGOs and scientists have submitted an abundance of evidence to the government that logging forests for fuel is destroying ancient and biodiverse forests, including in Canada. Such forest destruction is a major driver of climate change.

Elsie Blackshaw-Crosby, Managing Lawyer at The Lifescape Project, said:

“Despite an abundance of evidence that logging forests for fuel is increasing climate pollution and destroying irreplaceable ecosystems, the UK Biomass Strategy supports continued use of imported wood fuels and takes the false solution of biomass even further, relying extensively on BECCS to produce ‘negative emissions.’  This case calls the government to account for its total failure to assess the actual climate impacts of biomass and BECCS.”

The case argues that the Biomass Strategy is unlawful and breaches the Climate Change Act because burning forest biomass and relyingon BECCS for negative emissions will not contribute to the government’s legal obligation to achieve net zero by 2050.  Evidence in the case shows that the government’s rationale for BECCS as providing negative emissions violates international carbon accounting protocols underpinning the Paris Agreement, to which the UK is a signatory. The government’s own arguments about why bioenergy is climate-friendly are self-contradictory, and also contradict advice from the advisory panel convened to support the Biomass Strategy.     

Mary Booth, Director and lead scientist at the Partnership for Policy Integrity, said:

When it comes to the UK government’s claims about climate change mitigation from biomass and BECCS, the emperor has no clothes. Common sense tells us that burning trees and storing the carbon belowground isn’t going to deliver negative emissions, but even more importantly, such claims fly in the face of the carbon protocol underlying the Paris Agreement, to which the UK is a party. It’s time for the UK, and for all governments promoting biomass and BECCS, to get over their wishful thinking. To save the climate, we need to protect and restore forests, not burn them for energy.

North Yorkshire-based Drax, the UK’s largest biomass power plant, could be affected by the case. The largest consumer of wood pellets in Europe, Drax received over £3 million per day in renewable energy subsidies in 2022. The company is now trialing carbon capture and storage, which, it claims, will deliver “negative emissions.” Earlier this year, Drax was  told by its own scientific advisers to stop calling biomass carbon neutral.

Notes to editor:

The Complainants
Lifescape is a rewilding charity which aims to create, protect and restore wild places to ensure a sustainable future for life on Earth, while The Partnership for Policy Integrity (PFPI) uses analysis, litigation, and strategic communications to promote policies that protect climate, ecosystems, and people.  The two organisations comprise the Forest Litigation Collaborative, which pursues strategic litigation to promote the restoration of forest ecosystems and their associated carbon sinks, with particular emphasis on countering the use of forest biomass for renewable energy.

The Case
The case is an application for judicial review in the Administrative Court on the grounds that the government’s decision to adopt the Biomass Strategy (i) breaches the government’s obligation under the Climate Change Act to properly analyse the extent to which forest biomass energy and BECCS can make the required contribution to net zero; (ii) was irrational and/or based on inadequate inquiry and/or a failure to take into account relevant considerations such as the carbon impacts of forest biomass energy and BECCS; and (iii) was based on a flawed and unfair consultation process.. If successful the court would declare that the decision to publish the  Biomass Strategy was unlawful and the government would be forced to withdraw it.   

The government published the biomass strategy alongside a report by the government’s BECCS Task and Finish Group, convened to determine whether biomass can be carbon neutral, and whether BECCS can result in the net removal of CO2 from the atmosphere. The task force found that only biomass sourced from afforested areas might provide climate benefits and that most biomass burnt in the UK will be sourced in the medium-short term from managed forests, not afforestation. The strategy nonetheless continues to treat biomass as ‘low carbon’.

Drax received a net £1,231.8 million in contracts for difference and renewable certificate payments,[1] meaning that on average, Drax received £97 for each MWh of electricity it generated from biomass. This comes to a daily average payment of £3,374,794.52.

Page 192, Drax Annual Report 2022