In a huge win for climate campaigners and local pressure groups, the proposed third runway at London’s Heathrow Airport has been ruled illegal by the Court of Appeal.
It is also the first ruling in the world to be based on the Paris agreement, which was signed in 2016. It could prove to be a fatal blow for a project that has been plagued with setbacks for over a decade.
The runway, which would cost an estimated £14bn and be ready by 2028, would increase traffic to the airport by 700 planes per day. Its existence would fly (no pun intended) heavily in the face of the government’s commitment to net zero emissions by 2050. Prime Minister Boris Johnson was heavily opposed to its construction way back in the foreign planet that is 2015, saying he would “lie down in front of those bulldozers and stop the construction”. On the day of a key vote over the expansion’s fate, Johnson was in Afghanistan lunching with deputy foreign minister, Hekmat Karzai, which is being criticised for being both conveniently spur-of-the-moment, and expensive.
Government support for the planned expansion was large indeed, with a large majority of MPs backing it when it got the official go-ahead in 2018. Several legal challenges then came to pass, which were dismissed in May of last year. They were taken to the Court of Appeal, which made the ruling of its illegality. It’s not clear yet whether the government plans to in turn appeal this decision, as it has not yet sought permission to do so, according to a judge.
No amount of spin from Heathrow’s PR machine can obscure the carbon logic of a new runway
It’s a big victory for climate campaigners and pressure groups. However, according to Greenpeace UK’s Executive Director John Sauven, the fight isn’t over quite just yet.
“The court has decided that the Airports National Policy Statement is fatally undermined by ignoring climate commitments,” he said, “but we still need the government to permanently ground Heathrow’s expansion plans.”
“The third runway is already on its knees over costs, noise, air pollution, habitat loss and lack of access, and now Heathrow Ltd has yet another impossibly high hurdle to clear. No amount of spin from Heathrow’s PR machine can obscure the carbon logic of a new runway. Their plans would pollute as much as a small country. Boris Johnson should now put Heathrow out of its misery and cancel the third runway once and for all. No ifs, no buts, no lies, no u-turns.”
For Jonathan Church, a climate lawyer with ClientEarth, it’s a momentous achievement in using the law to tackle climate change.
“This is a remarkable result, which sets a precedent for major projects in the UK to consider the Paris Agreement,” he says.
“The judgment from the court was clear: in approving the Heathrow expansion, the government did not consider its obligations under that international climate treaty. Yes, that treaty is international and the UK is governed by UK law, but the court ruled that Paris constitutes UK government policy and therefore the government must consider it in making such decisions.”
For now, the prospect of hundreds more plans clogging up British airspace and pumping even greater amounts of Co2 into the atmosphere has been quelled. Let’s hope it stays that way.