‘This takes us backwards’: Green campaigners hit out at decision to lift ban on Heathrow third runway

Court of Appeal had ruled Heathrow expansion decision was unlawful because ministers had not fully considered the goals of the Paris Agreement

Daisy Dunne
Climate Correspondent
Wednesday 16 December 2020 18:43 GMT
Paint thrown at Supreme Court after Heathrow third runway ban lifted

A landmark ruling finding Heathrow’s third runway to be unlawful on climate crisis grounds has been overturned by the Supreme Court this morning – a decision labelled as a step “backwards” by campaigners.

The Supreme Court has ruled that government policy supporting Heathrow expansion was lawful, overturning a ruling that deemed the plans to be illegal because ministers had not fully considered the government’s obligations to tackle the climate crisis.

At 9.45 this morning, the UK’s highest court unanimously approved an appeal from Heathrow Airport Ltd to overturn a decision made by the Court of Appeal in February following a case brought by Friends of the Earth and legal action charity Plan B Earth.

The charities argued that a third runway at Heathrow would be unlawful because the former transport minister Chris Grayling had failed to fully take into account the government’s obligations under the Paris Agreement when setting out support for the project in an Airports national policy statement in 2018.

However, today High Court judge Lord Sales said Mr Grayling “did take the Paris Agreement into account and was not legally required to give it more weight than he decided was appropriate”.

The firm behind Heathrow will now be able to seek planning permission for the runway, but it is likely to face significant challenges given the more stringent climate targets of today, analysts said.

The Court of Appeal’s verdict was seen as historic by climate campaigners because it was the first significant ruling in the world to be based on the Paris Agreement, the international climate deal that requires countries to limit global warming to well below 2C above pre-industrial levels, with the aim of keeping temperatures to 1.5C.

Speaking today, Will Rundle, head of legal at Friends of the Earth, said: “This judgment is no ‘green light’ for expansion. It makes clear that full climate considerations remain to be addressed and resolved at the planning stage. Heathrow expansion remains very far from certain and we now look forward to stopping the third runway in the planning arena.

“With ever stronger climate policy commitments that Heathrow must meet, it remains unlikely it will ever get planning permission for the third runway. Friends of the Earth will fight it all the way. We are in this for people everywhere facing climate breakdown right now, and for the next generation who are being left to inherit a world changed for the worse.”

The news comes days after the UK’s independent climate advisers said that there could be no “net airport expansion” if the country is to meet its goal of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. 

This advice suggests any new airport expansion would need to be met with tougher restrictions elsewhere.

Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP, said: “This is incredibly disappointing news and takes us backwards in our response to the climate crisis. Commercial interests have won out over the protection of our planet and the wellbeing of future generations.  

“But it is not the end of the campaign and Heathrow’s plans will be opposed at every step of the planning process to stop this very damaging project which remains incompatible with the UK’s obligations under the Paris Agreement.”

The UK government did not join Heathrow Airport Ltd in its appeal to the Supreme Court, and Boris Johnson has previously vocally opposed plans for a third runway.

The Independent approached a government spokesperson for comment on the verdict.

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