Environmental campaigners and those opposed to the proposed third runway at London’s Heathrow Airport have lost a crucial battle in the High Court. They had argued that the new runway was inconsistent with the UK’s obligations under the Paris climate agreement.
A total of five judicial reviews attempted to challenge the legality of the government decision to press ahead with the controversial expansion plans. All were rejected by the court.
In one of the legal actions, Friends of the Earth argued that the third runway was unlawful because it would mean the government would be in breach of the Paris climate agreement.
Another challenge, which was made up of a coalition of Greenpeace, the current mayor of London Sadiq Kahn, and several local councils near Heathrow, argued that they would be overtly affected by increased noise and pollution.
Nigel Pleming QC, on behalf of the campaigners, argued that the expansion could see the number or passengers using the airport rise by 60% to 132 million a year.
Tim Crossland, the director of Plan B, a campaign group which advocates legal action to fight climate change, told UK media that it would be difficult for the government to defend its position on Heathrow in light of the increased public awareness of how serious climate change is becoming.
“This is a disappointing judgment by the court, but it is increasingly difficult to see how the government’s reckless plans to expand Heathrow airport can proceed. Following the recent Extinction Rebellion protests, there is widespread recognition that we are in a state of climate and ecological emergency,” he said.
Crossland said the decision by the High Court amounted to supporting the Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling’s, argument that the Paris agreement is irrelevant to the UK government’s policy on climate change.
John Sauven, the executive director of Greenpeace UK told UK media that the decision to press on with the new runway was madness, and flew in the face of declarations by London, the Welsh and Scottish governments and more than 90 local councils to declare a climate emergency.
“For as long as climate change remains an afterthought in government decisions, they are kicking our children in the teeth. Our children’s future, not the aviation industry’s expansion, should be our nation’s number one priority. Until it is, our commitment to opposing this disastrous scheme through every avenue available will continue,” he said.
A Legal Argument not an Environmental One
The High Court backed up its decision by saying that the hearing was only concerned with the legality behind building a third runway and not with its merits or environmental impact.
“[The] hearing was only concerned with the legality, and not the merits, of the airport’s national policy statement,” said Lord Justice Hickinbottom, sitting with Mr Justice Holgate, in the ruling.
However, had the British government adopted the Paris climate agreement into UK law, it might have been a different story entirely and the expansion may have been successfully challenged.
“What I find extraordinary in the judgment is that, on the issues with regard to climate change, the government gets off the hook simply because it has not adopted the Paris agreement into UK law,” said the shadow chancellor, John McDonnel, speaking after the ruling.
Although in a free vote in the house of commons last year, it was labour MPs that helped push through the decision to expand Heathrow by a huge majority of 296.
Huge Economic Benefits
Chris Grayling insisted that the expansion of Heathrow which is already Britain’s busiest airport was vital and that it would bring economic benefits to every part of the country.
“I now call on all public bodies not to waste any more taxpayers’ money or seek to further delay this vital project, which will benefit every corner of the United Kingdom,” insisted Grayling.
But many aviation experts believe the economic benefits are overstated and that many of the extra passengers using Heathrow would in fact be transit passengers who would spend no time in the UK.
There is also a concern that Heathrow airport is badly located. It is only 14 miles from central London and as such it is one of the only major cities in the world with aeroplanes constantly landing over it. This is booth potential dangerous and poses an air and noise pollution problem to those people living under the flight path.
Various governments have been dithering over increasing airport capacity in the South East of the UK for almost half a century. Under the current plan, the third runway would cost £14 billion and construction is due to begin 2021.