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Court rules Heathrow expansion plan illegal over climate impact

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The Court of Appeal has rejected the government’s current plans to build a third runway at Heathrow Airport, as the plans fail to account for climate change commitments under the Paris Agreement.

MPs voted in favour of the third runway in June 2018 by a majority of almost 300. Environmental groups, London boroughs, and the Mayor of London immediately began preparing legal action against the Department of Transport over the plans to expand Europe’s busiest airport, which they argued will have severe climate and local environmental impacts.

The Court of Appeal has ruled against the expansion, declaring that the policy is unlawful on account of its climate impact not being accounted for under the 2015 Paris Agreement. The agreement requires signatories, representing almost every government in the world, to severely slash national carbon emissions in order to maintain average global temperature rises within 2°C.

“The government when it published the ANPS (Airports National Policy Statement) has not taken into account its own firm policy commitments on climate change under the Paris Agreement. That, in our view, is legally fatal to the ANPS in its present form,” the judgement by Lords Justice Lindblom, Singh, and Haddon-Cave declared.

Summarising the judgement, Lord Justice Lindblom clarified that the court had not, and could not, decide that the expansion would be blocked or that the expansion is incompatible with the UK’s climate commitments in any form.

“The consequence of our decision is that the government will now have the opportunity to reconsider the NPS in accordance with the clear statutory requirements that Parliament has imposed,” he said.

According to the judges, the government has not requested to appeal the ruling in the Supreme Court, indicating that the government plans to either abandon or take some time to amend its plans.

Today’s ruling marks a victory for these groups and a mixed bag for Boris Johnson’s government, which must reconcile its commitment to supporting business, maintaining a 'global outlook' through Brexit, and updating transport infrastructure with the necessity to decarbonise the economy in accordance with the Paris Agreement. Johnson himself, a West London MP, has been historically opposed to the airport expansion, although he was conspicuously absent for the June 2018 vote on the policy.

Johnson’s successor as Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, who backed the legal challenge, welcomed the ruling as a “victory” for Londoners and future generations.

“We face a climate emergency and I’m delighted that the Court of Appeal has recognised that the Government cannot ignore its climate change responsibilities,” he said. “A new runway at Heathrow would have serious consequences on climate change, on air quality, on noise pollution, on road and rail networks and on the quality of life in our city. The government must now finally see sense and abandon its plans for a third runway at Heathrow. We really are facing a climate emergency and it’s about time the government started taking action to address this.”

The ruling has been welcomed by Friends of the Earth, the WWF, Greenpeace UK, which said that the expansion would “pollute as much as a small country”, Richmond council leader Gareth Roberts, Hillingdon Council leader Ray Puddifoot, the Aviation Environment Federation, Swedish climate campaigner Greta Thunberg, Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, Tory peer and former Richmond MP Zac Goldsmith, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell (who opined that the project is now “dead”), and environmental activist Chris Packham.

Airlines UK, the body representing UK airlines, described the decision as “extremely disappointing” and pointed to the “economic prize” of airport expansion.

A Heathrow spokesperson said: “The Court of Appeal dismissed all appeals against the government – including on noise and air quality – apart from one which is eminently fixable. We will appeal to the Supreme Court on this one issue and are confident that we will be successful.”

“In the meantime, we are ready to work with the government to fix the issue that the court has raised. Heathrow has taken a lead in getting the UK aviation sector to commit to a plan to get to net-zero emissions by 2050, in line with the Paris Accord. Expanding Heathrow, Britain’s biggest port and only hub, is essential to achieving the Prime Minister’s vision of global Britain. We will get it done the right way, without jeopardising the planet’s future. Let’s get Heathrow done.”

Josh Hardie, deputy-director general of the Confederation of British Industry, said: “This decision raises a fair question of how to balance reaching the net zero target without stifling the UK’s global ambitions. All major projects must be consistent with net zero and it’s clear that the Government and aviation industry need to work closely to agree a robust decarbonisation plan.”

“But this decision risks holding back the very investment in innovation needed to achieve that, and the ambitions of many businesses eager to benefit from greater international connectivity. It is vital that the Government and Heathrow work closely together to remedy the fair concerns raised by the judgement and keep this project on track. Opportunities for future trade will not wait.”

The ruling is unlikely to put an end to back-and-forth wrangling over the expansion project, which was first proposed almost 20 years - and many Prime Ministers - ago.

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