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What Future For Gas In The UK – And Further Afield?

What’s happening? Environmental law charity ClientEarth has ordered a judicial review of UK Business Secretary Andrea Leadsom's decision to let Drax build Europe’s largest gas power station against the advice of the government’s Planning Inspectorate.

Why does this matter? At the crux of this back-and-forth between the Planning Inspectorate, the government and ClientEarth is whether gas should be considered a viable “transition fuel” to help economies move to zero-carbon power generation.

Drax argues the plant – at a former coal-fired site – could be part of a portfolio of technologies to help the UK get to net zero emissions by 2050. ClientEarth says the 3.6 GW plant would lock in unnecessary emissions, which when finished would account for 75% of the UK power sector’s total CO2, and that Whitehall energy forecasts indicate there is no need for a plant of such size.

The UK’s legally binding Climate Change Act, set in 2008, has enabled this action from ClientEarth. The lawyers are able to argue the Act, which ties the hands of future UK governments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050, makes building such a large-scale fossil fuel plant untenable. Supporters would say this is an example of the legislation doing what it is supposed to do.

Leadsom, when ignoring the Planning Inspectorate’s advice, argued the plant was needed for the UK’s energy security. Others disagree, arguing that, as coal leaves the electricity system, a smarter grid filled with smaller renewable generators and offshore wind can make up lost capacity. The National Grid ESO says smarter grid infrastructure will enable it to operate the GB electricity system in a zero-carbon manner by 2025.

So, is gas part of the climate solution, or not? Internationally, the picture is mixed – switching from coal to gas is obviously good for emissions, at least in the short term. But others argue this just means locking in alternate fossil fuel infrastructure that would exceed safe atmospheric carbon budgets.

One might look to the EU’s sustainable taxonomy to categorise green investments for the answer but, after heavy lobbying (from the gas industry), a fudge was made to neither include nor exclude the technology. The jury is still out.

A lateral thought from Curation – While the role of gas in power markets is still being debated, in the shipping industry LNG has long been advocated as a means of cleaning up the sector’s pollution and greenhouse gas issues. However, a new study suggests that, in terms of the latter, methane leakage from LNG use could actually be making things worse. This is problematic as, unlike in the power sector, viable alternatives for low-carbon ship propulsion are in short supply.


Nick Finegold is Founder & CEO of Curation Corp, an emerging and peripheral risks monitoring service.

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