UK’s Heathrow airport expansion ruled unlawful over climate change

Three judges ruled the plans illegal because they failed to take into account the UK’s commitment to the Paris Agreement

Three juges in the UK have ruled expansion plans at Heathrow airport to be illegal over the UK's commitments to the Paris Agreement. (Photo: Heathrow Airports Limited)


Campaigners in the UK have hailed an “historic” victory for climate change after three judges ruled expansion plans for the country’s busiest airport to be unlawful.

Activists erupted into cheers at the Royal Courts of Justice in London after successfully blocking plans for a third runway at Heathrow airport.

Lord Justice Lindblom found that the plans backed by MPs disregarded the UK’s Paris Agreement pledge in 2015 to reduce carbon emissions to 1.5C or “well below” 2C warming.

We have concluded that the designation of ANPS (Airports National Policy Statement) was unlawful by reason of a failure to take into account the government’s commitment to the provisions of the Paris Agreement on climate change,” he told the packed courtroom in central London.

The ruling could have an impact both in the UK and elsewhere around the world, emboldening campaigners to file legal challenges against other carbon-intensive infrastructure projects.

The failure of the UK’s Secretary of State to justify the plans had been “legally fatal,” Lord Justice Lindblom added. But the judges dismissed other appeals against the UK Government, including on challenges relating to noise and air quality.

The ruling came after green groups teamed up with London Mayor Sadiq Khan and local authorities affected by the proposal to mount a series of legal challenges against the expansion.

Net zero goal ‘greatest commercial opportunity of our time,’ says Mark Carney

Plans for a third runway – which had been on track to open in 2028-29 – would have rerouted rivers, roads and the M25 and contributed an estimated 3-4million tonnes to UK’s carbon emissions. The cost of the project was initially estimated at £14 billion ($17.8bn) but has since risen to £32bn ( $40.6).

Head of Legal at Friends of the Earth, William Rundle, said: “It’s an historic victory for the climate and for the local communities fighting the Heathrow expansion for so very, very long.

“What we’ve managed to do is to stop the Heathrow expansion dead in the tracks. The government’s plan has been found to be illegal because they didn’t consider climate change properly, and shockingly, took legal advice that the Paris Agreement was not relevant.

At the time of the climate emergency this is an attitude that we really need, and we are really celebrating the Court of Appeal’s judgment. We need to put a halt to aviation expansion.”

Speaking outside the court, London mayor Khan said the decision was a victory for Londoners and for “future generations”.

He told reporters: “What the government should now do is not tinker, not tweak with their airports and national policy statement. Instead what they should do is abandon any plans for a new runway at Heathrow.”

Climate news in your inbox? Sign up here

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who in 2015 vowed to “lie down before the bulldozers” to oppose the third runway, has been noncommittal about the airport in the intervening five years, saying recently: “The bulldozers are some way off but I am following with lively interest the court cases”.

While the Court of Appeal does not have the scope to rule out the expansion going ahead, the ruling means the plans will now be subjected to renewed scrutiny in Parliament amid increased public pressure to meet its climate pledges.

Heathrow Airport and fellow supporters of the scheme have long argued that the expansion would bring considerable regional and national benefits as well as boost GDP growth to the UK after Brexit.

Today’s ruling came as the airport yesterday announced its ninth consecutive year of passenger growth, welcoming a record 80.9 million passengers last year.

However, a report by the think tank New Economics Foundation (NEF) found that an expansion would do the opposite of “levelling up”, by shifting jobs, carbon emissions and GDP from other regions into London and the south east from the North of England.

They also said the UK would be “blowing its carbon budget” – and that the 3-4 million tonnes of carbon emissions would be equivalent to the footprint of 100,000 jobs in manufacturing.

The Netherlands faces pressure as global ‘test case’ for deep emissions cuts in 2020

UK lawmakers backed the expansion by 415-119 votes in June 2018, after Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn gave his party a free vote. Sadiq Khan’s initial court challenge was unsuccessful, but the group was given leave to appeal in October last year.

Responding to the ruling, a Heathrow Airport spokesperson said the challenge on climate change front was “eminently fixable” and pledged to “get Heathrow done” regardless.

We will appeal to the Supreme Court on this one issue and are confident that we will be successful,” they said.

In the meantime, we are ready to work with the government to fix the issue that the court has raised. Heathrow has taken a lead in getting the UK aviation sector to commit to a plan to get to net zero emissions by 2050, in line with the Paris Accord.

Expanding Heathrow, Britain’s biggest port and only hub, is essential to achieving the prime minister’s vision of Global Britain. We will get it done the right way, without jeopardising the planet’s future.”

This piece is an extract of a story originally published by DeSmog UK

Read more on: Aviation |