Appeal court’s climate ruling delivers blow to Heathrow's expansion plans and third runway
(photo: Heathrow Airport)
Thu 27 Feb 2020 – The Court of Appeal in London has ruled the UK government acted unlawfully in failing to take into account the Paris climate change agreement when supporting the expansion of Heathrow Airport. In its judgement, the court said it was not making a decision that expansion was incompatible with the UK’s commitment to reducing emissions under Paris but the ruling raises doubts about whether a third runway will now be built. The government is now considering its next steps but the Transport Secretary has indicated it will not appeal the decision. Heathrow noted other challenges on noise and air pollution had been rejected by the court and said it would appeal to the Supreme Court as the issue was “eminently fixable”. Campaign groups fighting the expansion said the ruling had implications for other signatories to the Paris Agreement.
The judgement centres around the government’s Airports National Policy Statement (ANPS) that set the policy framework for expansion at Heathrow and the primary basis for decision-making on any development consent application for a new runway. It required the government to assess the supporting evidence, particularly with respect to the balance of environmental, social and health impacts.
“The Paris Agreement ought to have been taken into account by the Secretary of State,” said Lord Justice Lindblom in his ruling today. “The National Planning Statement was not produced as the law requires.”
Heidi Copland, Head of Planning at law firm DMH Stallard, said: “The ANPS is not itself determinative of permission being granted to begin development. It would however be one of a number of key considerations in any application for Development Consent. Having deemed the ANPS to have no legal effect, the Court of Appeal has effectively ensured that consent will be delayed until either this judgement is reversed by the Supreme Court or the government re-examines the proposed expansion to take the Paris Agreement into account.
"This is the first decision of its kind to hold that the temperature goal set out in the Paris Agreement has binding effect on those who signed up to it. In 2015, the then Secretary of State for Transport Chris Grayling stated the Agreement, which amongst other goals set a target of keeping global temperature rise below 2C, was “not relevant” to climate policy. The effect of this ruling is to hold otherwise, and may open the door to further challenges of national planning policies which have failed to take the Paris Agreement into consideration, not just in the UK but in all member countries.”
A Heathrow spokesperson said it was confident an appeal to Supreme Court would be successful and, in the meantime, would work with the government “to fix the issue that the court had raised.”
The airport pointed out that since the original court hearing, which had backed the government’s ANPS policy, the UK aviation industry had set out a detailed plan to reaching net zero carbon by 2050 (see article).
“This is a challenge that needs to be addressed for any UK airport to expand,” it added in a statement.
Trade body Airlines UK said the ruling was “extremely disappointing.”
Commented Chief Executive Tim Alderslade: “The economic prize is enormous if expansion is done right, with airlines ready to respond to the unlocking of new capacity by creating new routes and helping to connect the UK to new markets and destinations, and Heathrow to regions across the country. UK aviation has committed to net zero carbon by 2050 and this factors in the emissions created by Heathrow expansion. It is not a question of being pro-aviation or pro-environment.
“Of course, the advantages of an extra runway won’t be realised if landing charges are ramped up and airlines can’t afford to operate at the airport – and our support for expansion will remain conditional upon Heathrow delivering on their commitment to keep charges at current levels – but we are clear that as a country we cannot keep fudging this issue if we are to maintain our credibility internationally, and we urge ministers to appeal the decision, back expansion publicly and ensure it delivers for the whole country.”
Willie Walsh, CEO of International Airlines Group, which owns British Airways, told the BBC the prospects for a third runway had “significantly diminished”.
“This is a huge win for the climate and leaves Heathrow’s third runway plans in tatters,” said AEF Deputy Director, Cait Hewitt. “The project would increase emissions at the UK’s biggest airport and the UK has since legislated to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, so it’s very hard to see how government could now ever demonstrate that a third runway could be reconciled with the necessary scale of climate action.”
She noted that the ruling came shortly after local councils had rejected plans for the expansion of Bristol and Stansted airports on the basis of their environmental impacts, including climate change.
“The ruling today sets a precedent that the Paris Agreement must be the yardstick against which we measure all major infrastructure projects. All 195 governments who have ratified the Agreement could now see legal cases brought against projects which are incompatible with a 1.5 degree future,” said climate campaign group Extinction Rebellion.
Stay Grounded, an international network with 150 member organisations, many of whom oppose local airport projects, said the decision was a milestone for climate litigation.
“It gives hope to hundreds of communities around the world in their struggles against destructive airport projects: indigenous people, farmers and citizens who face losing their land and homes due to airport projects. But today we saw it is possible to stop them and preserve a liveable planet for us and future generations,” said Stay Grounded’s Magdalena Heuwieser. “We congratulate all the groups who are active against the third runway, including our member Plan B who brought the challenge to court. If we stand together, we can stop the aviation industry’s dangerous growth addiction and create a just transport system that works for the people and the planet.”