Extinction Rebellion protesters oppose Heathrow Airport expansion plansClimate protesters oppose the UK government's Heathrow Airport expansion plans because they run counter to its commitment to reduce carbon emissions. Photo credit: Peter Summers/Getty Images
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By Isabella Kaminski

LONDON—A challenge to the expansion of London’s Heathrow Airport failed on Wednesday. Several groups had sought to stop the building of a new runway on the grounds that it is incompatible with the United Kingdom’s commitment to tackle climate change, but the court ruled the Paris Agreement did not apply directly in UK law.

The judgment was issued by the High Court of England and Wales on Wednesday, hours before the UK parliament voted to formally declare a climate emergency.

The decision followed five judicial reviews of the UK government’s decision to build a third runway at Heathrow. Several groups, including environmental activists Friends of the Earth and Plan B, argued the government had not properly taken into account its own commitments and the latest scientific evidence on climate change.

Lord Justice Gary Hickinbottom and Justice David Holgate wrote in their judgment: “The Paris Agreement does not form part of UK law and so, while the UK has ratified it, until parliament decides if and how to incorporate the Paris Agreement target, it has no effect in domestic law.”

The decision feels “completely out of step with the real world,” said Will Rundle of Friends of the Earth. “Parliament’s decision to green-light Heathrow was morally wrong, but today we believe the courts have got it legally wrong too.”

UK transport secretary Chris Grayling called the expansion of Heathrow Airport vital and said in a statement it would boost the country’s economy “at no cost to the taxpayer and within our environmental obligations.”

He added: “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.”

But although the judges found that the government had acted legally in not taking the Paris Agreement into account, they said the issue would be revisited when the formal consent process for building the third runway begins “on the basis of the then up-to-date position.”

This is important because just after the judgment was issued, the UK government’s expert advisors, the Committee on Climate Change, recommended that the country formally tighten its national greenhouse gas emissions target to net zero by 2050. Its current goal is to cut emissions by 80 percent by 2050 based on 1990 levels.

Plan B director Tim Crosland said the court’s decision was disappointing but it was “increasingly difficult” to see how the expansion of Heathrow Airport could proceed. “Since that recommendation [of the CCC] is obviously inconsistent with the expansion of Heathrow, presumably the plans will now need to be reviewed.”

The UK parliament’s vote to formally declare a climate emergency followed a similar announcement by the Scottish and Welsh governments and dozens of local authorities across the country.

Crosland is also a legal adviser to direct action group Extinction Rebellion, which staged large-scale protests that disrupted large parts of central London last week. He said there is now widespread public recognition of the urgency of tackling climate change. “Acting on that emergency demands an urgent and radical reduction of emissions, which is clearly inconsistent with plans to expand aviation,” he said.

Both Friends of the Earth and Plan B said they will appeal the decision.

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