Climate protesters celebrate after court finds a third runway at Heathrow illegal on climate grounds 


By Anders Lorenzen

A court in London was the scene of the latest court ruling on the grounds of climate science.

The climate campaign group Friends of the Earth UK had taken the UK government to court arguing that the third runway at Heathrow, Europe’s largest airport, a runway that UK’s conservative government had approved, is not consistent with the rapid steps which need to be taken to tackle climate change. 

This was an argument that the London Court of Appeal last month ruled in favour of.

The UK government have said they will not appeal the ruling.

London’s Court of Appeal ruled that the previous government had not taken account of climate change commitments when opting for a third runway at Europe’s busiest airport, and that policy statement must now be reviewed in order to be legal. 

In addition, the court also found that UK’s former transport secretary Chris Grayling had acted unlawfully by breaching §10 of the 2008 Planning Act when approving the third runway. He had disregarded the Paris Agreement, the non-CO2 warming impacts of aviation, and the effects of climate change beyond 2050 when approving the extension.

The court stated that this matter was a case of “exceptional public interest” and noted that climate change is a matter of profound national as well as international importance, of great concern to the public, to the UK and to other national governments.

Meanwhile, Friends of the Earth are celebrating this ruling as a groundbreaking event. Their legal head Will Rundle stated: “This ruling is an absolutely ground-breaking result for climate justice. We were fighting a project that would have had dire implications for present and future generations.” 

He further added: “This judgment has exciting wider implications for keeping climate change at the heart of all planning decisions. It’s time for developers and public authorities to be held to account when it comes to the climate impact of their damaging developments.”

Friends of the Earth also paid respect to local campaigners who had been battling the third runway for years.

The solicitor Rowan Smith from the law firm Leigh Day who represented the green group said: “What is emphatically clear in this judgment is that the Court of Appeal concluded that there was absolutely no legal means by which the Government could ignore its international climate change commitments under the Paris Agreement.  And that such an omission was a fatal flaw to the lawfulness of the policy to greenlight a third runway at Heathrow Airport.”

What happens next is unclear. The ruling did not rule out entirely a new runway but that it should fit within UK climate policy. Heathrow bosses will now go back to the drawing board and decide when to appeal to the UK Supreme Court which they have confirmed they will do. They might also decide to revamp their climate impact plan to pledge more ambitious emission cuts. 

Days before the ruling, Heathrow had published its climate plan but it had been criticised for only looking at reducing emissions in the operation of the airport, and not at the impact of in and outgoing air traffic with the latter accounting for the majority of emissions.

Emissions from transport are the fastest rising source of CO2 emissions.


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