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Heathrow third runway ruled illegal over climate change as not consistent with Paris agreement

28 February 2020 | Mitigation

 

Plans for a third runway at Heathrow airport have been ruled illegal by the court of appeal because ministers did not adequately take into account the government’s commitments to tackle the climate crisis.

The ruling is a major blow to the project at a time when public concern about the climate emergency is rising fast and the government has set a target in law of net zero emissions by 2050. The prime minister, Boris Johnson, could use the ruling to abandon the project, or the government could draw up a new policy document to approve the runway.

The government is considering its next steps but will not appeal against the verdict. The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, said: “Our manifesto makes clear any Heathrow expansion will be industry-led. Airport expansion is core to boosting global connectivity and levelling up across the UK. We also take seriously our commitment to the environment.”

Johnson has opposed the runway, saying in 2015 that he would “lie down in front of those bulldozers and stop the construction”. Heathrow is already one the busiest airports in the world, with 80 million passengers a year. The £14bn third runway could be built by 2028 and would bring 700 more planes per day and a big rise in carbon emissions.

Johnson is thought to have been looking for a pretext to withdraw support for the extra runway and could make the argument for Birmingham to provide increased airpot capacity for London given that train journey times will be reduced by HS2.

The court’s ruling is the first major ruling in the world to be based on the Paris climate agreement and may have an impact both in the UK and around the globe by inspiring challenges against other high-carbon projects.

Lord Justice Lindblom said: “The Paris agreement ought to have been taken into account by the secretary of state. The national planning statement was not produced as the law requires.”

“It’s now clear that our governments can’t keep claiming commitment to the Paris agreement, while simultaneously taking actions that blatantly contradict it” said Tim Crosland, at legal Plan B, which brought the challenge. “The bell is tolling on the carbon economy loud and clear.”

The challenges were dismissed in the high court in May 2019 but the complainants took their cases to the court of appeal, which delivered its verdicts on Thursday.

Organizartions argued that the Paris agreement target, which the government had ratified, was an essential part of government climate policy and that ministers had failed to assess how a third runway could be consistent with the Paris target of keeping global temperature rise as close to 1.5C as possible.

“This is an opportunity for Boris Johnson to put Heathrow expansion to bed and focus on the most important diplomatic event of his premiership, the UN climate summit in Glasgow in November,” said Lord Randall, a former Conservative MP and climate adviser to the former prime minister Theresa May. “It’s his chance to shine on the world stage.”

The court of appeal did not overturn the high court’s dismissal of the other challenges, which related to air and noise pollution, traffic, and the multibillion pound cost of the runway.

But the Paris agreement ruling is far-reaching, according to Margaretha Wewerinke-Singh, an international public law expert at Leiden University, in the Netherlands. “Its implications are global,” she said.

“For the first time, a court has confirmed that the Paris agreement temperature goal has binding effect. This goal was based on overwhelming evidence about the catastrophic risk of exceeding 1.5C of warming. Yet some have argued that the goal is aspirational only, leaving governments free to ignore it in practice.”

Prof Corinne Le Quéré, at the University of East Anglia, said: “Government needs to put climate targets at the heart all big decisions, or risk missing their own net zero objectives with devastating consequences for climate and stability. I am relieved this is finally recognised in law.”

Climate campaigner Greta Thunberg said: “Imagine when we all start taking the Paris agreement into account.”

Heathrow and proponents of the third runway say it would provide an economic boost and is important for international business, particularly after Brexit. “The court of appeal dismissed all appeals against the government – including on ‘noise’ and ‘air quality’ – apart from one, [i.e. climate change] which is eminently fixable,” said a spokeswoman for Heathrow.

“We will appeal [as an interested party] to the supreme court on this one issue and are confident that we will be successful. 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.”

At a separate event on Thursday, Ashok Sharma, the business secretary and president of November’s UN COP26 climate summit, said: “The only economy which can avoid the worst effects of climate change, and thus continue to deliver growth, is a decarbonised economy. Our choices will make or break the zero-carbon economy.”

 

Source: The Guardian