Supreme Court Overturns Ban on Heathrow’s Third Runway

Supreme Court Overturns Ban on Heathrow’s Third Runway
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Campaigners opposing Heathrow expansion today remained defiant as a top court ruled that the government’s decision to approve it was legal.

The Supreme Court concluded that the UK government was within its rights to green-light a controversial third runway at the airport because it had considered all the appropriate climate change rules it was required to at the time.

Court battles

In February, the Court of Appeal found that the government’s policy framework for Heathrow expansion – the airports national policy statement (ANPS) finalised in 2018 – had failed to take into account the UK’s Paris Agreement commitment to reduce warming to “well below” 2C. Campaigners had celebrated that victory, saying it stopped the third runway “dead in its tracks”. 

But although the UK government accepted the court’s conclusion, Heathrow Airport Ltd appealed, arguing that an international treaty such as the Paris Agreement cannot be made government policy until it is entered into domestic law. The UK’s target for becoming net zero by 2050 was set in June 2019 – one year after the ANPS was approved.

Judges at the Supreme Court said the government’s reasoning had been “plainly rational and lawful”. They said then Transport Secretary Chris Grayling had followed the advice of the Committee on Climate Change, which advises the government on climate matters, and had properly accounted for the UK’s domestic emissions obligations as enshrined in the Climate Change Act 2008. “Further reference to the Paris Agreement was not required,” said the judgment.

Nor had the government failed to properly account for emissions after the year 2050 or non-CO2 emissions from Heathrow expansion, the Supreme Court concluded.


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Betrayal’

The case was brought by campaign groups Plan B and Friends of the Earth.

Tim Crosland, Director of Plan B, broke an embargo to reveal the court’s decision a day early saying the Supreme Court’s judgment, “which has legitimised Mr Grayling’s use of the deadly 2C threshold, has betrayed us all”. 

But he pointed out that the airport’s expansion still faces a number of practical hurdles. 

Plan B will launch proceedings before the European Court of Human Rights on the basis that the government’s reliance on a 2C temperature limit is inconsistent with the right to life protected by Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Plan B will also urge the government to review the ANPS under the Planning Act 2008, on the basis that the UK‘s net zero target is a fundamental change of circumstances since the original decision in June 2018.

Heathrow Airport Ltd would also have to obtain a development consent order before work can progress. The Supreme Court said that process would need to consider current climate obligations, including the UK‘s current net zero target, so the order is likely to face legal challenges of its own. The airport also has to meet strict air quality and noise rules.

Fight continues

Will Rundle, head of legal at Friends of the Earth, said the judgment was no “green light” for airport expansion. “It makes clear that full climate considerations remain to be addressed and resolved at the planning stage. Heathrow expansion remains very far from certain and we now look forward to stopping the third runway in the planning arena.”

In a statement, Heathrow Airport said the decision was “the right result for the country”. “Heathrow has already committed to net zero and this ruling recognises the robust planning process that will require us to prove expansion is compliant with the UK’s climate change obligations, including the Paris Climate Agreement, before construction can begin.” 

But Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, who has opposed the third runway, said he was disappointed at the decision “which will have a damaging impact on air quality, noise and London’s ability to achieve net-zero carbon by 2030”. 

Some campaigners pointed to the financial turmoil currently faced by the aviation industry, suggesting it would lessen the economic case for a third runway.

Rowan Smith, solicitor for law firm Leigh Day which represented Friends of the Earth, noted recent advice from the Committee on Climate Change which found that, in order to meet its net zero target, there should be no net increase in UK airport capacity.

Paul McGuinness, chair of the No 3rd Runway Coalition, said the decision would disappoint many people but may yet prove irrelevant,with so much having changed since Heathrow was recommended for expansion. The assessments on air quality, noise, carbon and the economics are all out of date, with chunks having already been exposed as inadequate.” 

The UK Department for Transport said it would consider the judgment and respond in due course.

Main image credit: Aerial view of Heathrow Airport. Wikimedia/CC BY 2.5
Supreme Court Overturns Ban on Heathrow’s Third Runway
Isabella Kaminski is a UK-based freelance journalist specialising in the environment and climate change.

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