The Court of Appeals is considering activists' charges that expanding Heathrow will render the UK's climate goals unreachableThe UK Court of Appeal will decide whether the planned expansion of Heathrow should be allowed under current UK climate laws. Photo credit: Justin Tallas/AFP/Getty Images
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By Isabella Kaminski

Climate activists in the United Kingdom have doubled down on attempts to stop the expansion of London’s Heathrow airport with fresh arguments that the development would violate the rights of future generations.

During a hearing held in the Court of Appeal in London over the past week, environmental activists Friends of the Earth and Plan B again argued that the government had failed to properly take into account its own commitments and the latest scientific evidence on climate change when deciding whether to build a third runway at Heathrow.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has also joined the case for the first time. It submitted written evidence arguing that the planned expansion violates the rights of children and future generations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). It says this is incompatible with the concept of sustainable development as understood in both domestic and international law.

The High Court of England and Wales dismissed all the original challenges to the expansion in May, ruling that the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change did not apply directly in UK law.

But since then, the UK parliament has voted to formally declare a climate emergency and in June it became the first major economy in the world to sign into law a target for reaching net zero by 2050.

Campaigners argue that expanding Heathrow is clearly incompatible with this legally binding goal. Friends of the Earth told the Court of Appeal that, by refusing to accept the full implications of the Paris Agreement, the Secretary of State responsible for approving the Heathrow project had his “head in the sand.” 

The court’s decision on this matter, they added, would govern the UK’s future approach to sustainable development for major infrastructure projects.

The airport expansion is also opposed by local government councils, the mayor of London and others, who cite a variety of negative impacts, including air pollution and noise.

Technically, the Court of Appeal can only rule on a point of law, in this case whether the Secretary of State’s decision was lawful at the time it was passed. That decision was made before a net zero target had been set. 

But Friends of the Earth contended that one of the government’s own arguments in this latest hearing—that the very adoption of a net zero target made the appeal academic—makes it relevant and open for scrutiny. 

Expansion of the airport is politically very controversial. The UK’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose constituency is near Heathrow, was once so opposed to the project that he promised to “lie down in front of those bulldozers” to stop it. Since taking up the country’s top political job, however, he has been quiet on the subject.

Willie Walsh, chief executive of International Airlines Group, which owns British Airways, recently said the project was “unlikely to go ahead” because it was difficult to justify economically or environmentally.

The court’s decision is expected in the next few months.

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