Heathrow expansion grounded over climate considerations

Britain’s commitment to the Paris Agreement on climate change trumps government airports policy, a court has ruled.

Heathrow houses - reuters
Local campaigners have complained about noise pollution, while environmental activists have pointed to the climate crisis as an urgent need for action [Toby Melville/Reuters]

Campaigners have won a London court ruling to block the controversial plans for a third runway at Heathrow Airport on environmental grounds.

Thursday’s ruling by the United Kingdom’s Court of Appeal could stall the 14 billion pound ($18bn) plan to expand the world’s second-busiest airport amid concerns about climate change, pollution and noise.

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In a landmark ruling, judges said the UK being a signatory to the Paris climate agreement was a commitment in law to prevent activities harmful to the environment. 

Heathrow said it would appeal to the Supreme Court, and said it was “confident that we will be successful”.

The case pits local governments and environmentalists against Heathrow, which plans to build a third runway to meet the increasing demand for air travel.


Parliament approved the plan in 2018, triggering a challenge from environmental groups who say the project conflicts with the UK’s commitments to fight global warming. Local residents also complain about noise, pollution and increased congestion.

But while campaigners popped Champagne and handed round plastic cups outside court, not everyone was celebrating.

Nadine Houghton, national officer of the GMB union, said: “GMB is disappointed by today’s court ruling.

“Heathrow expansion is a complicated issue, but we have consistently backed it because the benefits more than outweigh any risks. Expansion would protect the existing 80,000 jobs, create a further 114,000 as well as 10,000 apprenticeships.

“Like everyone else, GMB members are very worried about climate change, but we would have held Heathrow Airport Ltd’s feet to the fire on their target for zero carbon by the mid-2030s.

“The government must now come up with a proper aviation strategy for the UK – and unions must be front and centre in those discussions.”

Heathrow’s plans to reduce carbon emissions to zero exclude emissions from aeroplanes, say campaigners, and thus ignore the majority of pollution generated at Heathrow.

Transport secretary Grant Shapps said the government would not appeal the decision.

“For Heathrow, it’s another setback in what has become a loop of green lights, followed by court of appeal setbacks, changes in government, and an array of prime ministers, each with very mixed feelings towards expanding Britain’s largest and only international hub airport,” aviation analyst Alex Macheras told Al Jazeera.

“The reality is that global aviation is under fire for its two percent contribution to overall CO2 emissions more than it ever has been in history, and the transition from climate protest to climate legislation is likely to continue to hinder any chances Heathrow has of expanding in this decade.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has long been an opponent of the expansion – when first elected to Parliament as Heathrow’s local MP in 2015, he pledged to lie in front of bulldozers to stop the construction – and the ruling opens the possibility that he will use the decision as the reason to reconsider the matter, and perhaps try to kill it.

A spokesman for Johnson told reporters on Wednesday that Heathrow must still meet high environmental standards and demonstrate a “realistic” business case for the project.

The message is finally getting through. The bell is tolling on the carbon economy loud and clear

by Tim Crosland, Plan B

London Mayor Sadiq Khan, another longtime opponent of the project, described the decision as a victory for future generations.

“The government must now finally see sense and abandon plans for a third runway at Heathrow,” Khan said.

“We really are facing a climate emergency, and it’s about time the government started taking action to address this.”

The implications of Thursday’s ruling could be major.

“This ruling isn’t only disastrous for the Heathrow expansion plan, but potentially for other huge infrastructure projects as well,” said Al Jazeera’s Laurence Lee, reporting from the appeals court in London.

“They’ll all now be judged against whether they meet the legal demands of the climate change accords. Really it’s the new front line between business and government which demands economic growth all the time – but which also have obligations to slow climate change. It’s not at all clear there’s any sort of obvious accommodation before new technology provides the answers.”

No amount of spin from Heathrow's PR machine can obscure the carbon logic of a new runway. Their plans would pollute as much as a small country.

by John Sauven, Greenpeace

Greenpeace said the majority of flights were taken by just 10 percent of the population and called for a frequent flyer levy.

“No amount of spin from Heathrow’s PR machine can obscure the carbon logic of a new runway,” said executive director John Sauven in a statement emailed to Al Jazeera.

“Their plans would pollute as much as a small country. Boris Johnson should now put Heathrow out of its misery and cancel the third runway once and for all. No ifs, no buts, no lies, no U-turns.”

Tim Crosland, director of pressure group Plan B, one of the organisations which brought the legal action, said: “It would have been hard to imagine this outcome even a couple of years ago, but as the scale and impacts of the ecological crisis become clearer, with people dying and being displaced in the UK and around the world, it’s vital we reject the politics of division and unite in adversity.

“This is an important moment for all of us, and for our young people in particular. Some sanity is finally prevailing. It’s now clear that our governments can’t keep claiming commitment to the Paris Agreement, while simultaneously taking actions that blatantly contradict it.

“We welcome the ruling of the court and we welcome the government’s acceptance of it. The government has a crucial responsibility to show real climate leadership ahead of COP26 and this is an important start.

“It’s all those people who have been working so hard to sound the alarm, whether by taking to the streets or in other ways, who have made this outcome possible. The message is finally getting through. The bell is tolling on the carbon economy loud and clear.”

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies