Environmental groups are challenging the plan for Heathrow airport expansion on climate groundsEnvironmental groups are challenging the plan to expand Heathrow Airport, citing the increased carbon emissions. Photo credit: Friends of the Earth
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By Isabella Kaminski

LONDON—The United Kingdom government has been forced to defend its plan to build a third runway at Heathrow Airport after several groups filed legal challenges claiming it had not taken into account the latest evidence and its own commitments on climate change.

The five separate challenges were heard in a judicial review at the High Court of England and Wales in London as part of a joint hearing that ended Tuesday. The claimants—environmental campaign groups Friends of the Earth, Plan B and Greenpeace, local authorities near Heathrow airport, London Mayor Sadiq Khan and a private citizen—mainly argued against the noise, air pollution and biodiversity impacts of the third runway, while Friends of the Earth and Plan B focused their case on climate change.

The UK government has for decades considered how to increase the nation’s flight capacity and eventually settled on the idea of expanding Heathrow, already the UK’s busiest airport. It claimed the expansion would provide capacity for up to 132 million passengers by 2030, boost the national economy by billions of pounds and create thousands of local jobs. In 2018, parliament approved an Aviation National Policy Statement (ANPS) that included this project.

But the project drew immediate opposition, across the UK’s political spectrum. Opposition MP John McDonnell, whose constituency includes Heathrow Airport, has described campaigns against expansion as the “iconic battleground” against climate change across the world.

In the latest court case, environmental groups claimed the ANPS is illegal because it does not explain how it takes account of domestic targets for greenhouse gas emissions reduction for 2050 under the Climate Change Act 2008. It also does not specify its carbon impact as recommended by the national Committee on Climate Change.

They also charge that the ANPS did not factor in international developments such as the Paris Agreement, which was signed before the ANPS was approved, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report published last October that warned the world has 12 years to make serious strides in curtailing emissions to prevent the worst of climate impacts.

Friends of the Earth and Plan B disagreed on how directly applicable the Paris Agreement is in UK law, but they both argued policymakers should have to consider it.. David Wolfe, attorney for Friends of the Earth, said the government should have considered emerging discussions and evidence on climate change when making its decision.

Plan B’s Tim Crosland told the court that the Paris Agreement’s aim of limiting global warming to “well below” 2 degrees C has been the “lynchpin of government and international policy” since December 2015, so the government was bound to take it into account.

Plan B failed in its attempt last year to force the UK government to tighten its carbon emissions reduction targets to bring them in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement. An appeal in the case was rejected.

The campaign groups also argued that the decision did not factor in other  climate impacts of a third runway, such as nitrogen oxide emissions, and did not fully consider the impact on future generations. Plan B added that the decision to approve the project was irrational and a breach of human rights because the UK’s own Foreign Office accepts climate change as an existential threat and is helping other countries cut their emissions in line with the Paris Agreement’s temperature limit.

The government maintains that it can increase flight and passenger numbers while keeping the country as a whole within its carbon budgets.

Government attorney James Maurici told the court he was not disputing the importance of climate change. But he argued that any changes to UK climate policy had to go through a formal process under the Climate Change Act before they become a statutory commitment.

The government is currently waiting for the advice of its expert Climate Change Committee on whether it needs to amend its carbon targets, and is developing an aviation strategy which is due to be published later this year.

Maurici also said the government had followed the proper procedure in considering impacts aside from carbon emissions and evidence on them is “just too uncertain to make any assessment.”

The court is expected to rule on the challenges in the next few months.

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