Heathrow Airport: Supreme Court gives go-ahead for third runway, despite climate campaigns

Pictured: An artist's impression of the expanded airport from above

One of the lawyers fighting against the expansion, Tim Crosland of Plan B Earth, released a statement on Twitter late on Tuesday (15 December) revealing the decision. He broke the Supreme Court’s embargo on the decision, set for this morning (16 December) calling his decision to do so “an act of civil disobedience”.

Crosland’s statement reiterated the decision made by the Court of Appeal back in February – that the emissions resulting from flights from the third runway would breach the UK’s Paris Agreement compliance. The Court sided with Heathrow as local authorities and citizens’ groups asked for a block on noise pollution and air pollution grounds, but ultimately decided that the expansion was incompatible with international climate agreements.

“The pandemic has reminded us of our subjection to natural laws,” Crosland wrote.

”The Paris Temperature Limit is all that divides us from a grim future of crisis upon crisis.”

Crosland argues that all climate-related justifications for the expansion are based on the Paris Agreement’s less ambitious 2C scenario – despite the IPCC’s research outlining the negative consequences this level of temperature rise would have on biodiversity, water security and the economy.

Since Crosland published the statement, the Supreme Court has confirmed that it has given the theoretical go-ahead to Heathrow Airport. The UK Government upheld its promise not to push for the expansion after the Court of Appeal’s decision; the new challenge was pushed forward by the airport’s corporate arm instead.

In a decision briefing aired virtually from 9.45am, representatives for the Supreme Court said that the government could not be held responsible for policymakers’ comments to the media, green groups and MPs on the Paris Agreement. The argument is that appeals can only be won when actual written policy is broken.

The representatives also concluded that Heathrow and the Government have taken the Paris Agreement into account and were not legally required to do so to a greater level. Environmental reports were found to be adequate and consultations deemed to give fair voice to opponents.

Heathrow notably lost its title as Europe’s busiest airport amid the Covid-19 pandemic. In February, the airport stated that Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport is “growing at twice the rate and is set to overtake as Europe’s leading hub airport within the next two years”.

At the time, the airport’s chief executive John Holland-Kaye said it would “be an economic disaster” for Heathrow to lose its title as the UK completes the Brexit transition period. He told media outlets that the new runway would be “essential”.

The new runway would see Heathrow Airport go from overseeing 480,000 takeoffs and landings each year to around 740,000. It would not be completed until 2030.

Disappointment and anger

Many green groups have been quick to argue that the Supreme Court’s decision today is not compatible with many of the UK’s green policy packages, including its 2050 net-zero target and the recently-published National Infrastructure Strategy (NIS).

The NIS’s publication was delayed from March to November to give policymakers in the Treasury more time to make it net-zero compatible. Alongside the NIS, Chancellor Rishi Sunak confirmed the launch of a new national investment bank with net-zero as a core remit. The bank will begin operating in the first half of 2021. While rules on financing are yet to be sharpened, EU’s investment bank notably moved to end financing for airport expansions last month.

Responding to the Supreme Court’s decision, the Climate Coalition’s campaign director Clara Goldsmith said that all 140 member organisations are “very disappointed”. The Coalition represents some of the UK’s biggest charities including the National Trust, Women’s Institute, Oxfam and RSPB.

To fulfil the Prime Minister’s ambition for a green industrial revolution, the only infrastructure projects going ahead must be those that reduce emissions and boost green jobs,” Goldsmith said. “The Government must now confirm that they will abandon any plans for aviation expansion, including at Heathrow. Failure to do so would bust the UK’s carbon budgets and undermine the UK’s climate reputation.”

Friends of the Earth’s head of legal, Will Rundle, said the organisation is ready to “fight all the way” against the expansion. 
“With ever stronger climate policy commitments that Heathrow must meet, it remains unlikely it will ever get planning permission for the third runway,” Rundle said. “We are in this for people everywhere facing climate breakdown right now, and for the next generation who are being left to inherit a world changed for the worse.”

Plan B Earth has also said it will continue to oppose the third runway.

Sarah George  

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