The UK Supreme Court ruled this month in favor of Heathrow International Airport in a case challenging the airport’s third runway expansion project on climate change grounds. British environmental law charity Plan B – one of the plaintiffs in this case – called the ruling a “betrayal” to young people and the Global South who are most vulnerable to climate change impacts. Plan B director Tim Crosland broke the court’s embargo on the verdict by announcing it a day ahead of schedule as an act of civil disobedience.
The Supreme Court ruling, issued December 16, 2020, overturns a Court of Appeal decision earlier this year to invalidate the third runway project. The appeals court ruled on February 27, 2020 that the Secretary of State for Transport, Chris Grayling, did not take into account the Paris Agreement goals in the national policy supporting the airport expansion. The UK government accepted this ruling, but two private parties with stakes in airport expansion (including Heathrow Airport Limited) did not and they appealed to the Supreme Court. In its verdict, the Supreme Court determined that the Paris Agreement is not official government policy and that no legal obligations were breached in considering airport expansion.
Environmental groups Plan B and Friends of the Earth first brought the climate lawsuit against the UK government over the Heathrow expansion in 2018, alleging violations of UK statutory law and the Paris Agreement. Plan B argued that the Transport Secretary failed to consider the more ambitious Paris Agreement objective to limit warming to 1.5 degrees C in approving the runway expansion. The government’s initial 2050 climate target was based on a 2 degree C warming limit, though the Paris Agreement (adopted in 2015) aims to limit warming to well below 2 degrees C.
“The Supreme Court’s judgment, which has legitimised Mr. Grayling’s use of the deadly 2˚C threshold, has betrayed us all,” Plan B’s Tim Crosland said in a press statement reacting to the December 16 verdict.
Plan B says it will continue to challenge the airport expansion by taking its case to the European Court of Human Rights. That international court, based in Strasbourg, France, currently has two other climate change lawsuits pending.
Furthermore, the airport expansion could face additional legal challenges going forward in the planning stage. As Plan B explained in an emailed statement: “Before work can progress Heathrow Airport Limited will need to obtain a ‘Development Consent Order,’ which is subject to a further legal challenge. As the Supreme Court made clear, that process would need to consider current climate obligations, including the UK's net zero by 2050 target. Heathrow expansion implies 40 million tonnes of CO2 from UK aviation by 2050, so that’s an obvious problem.”
Friends of the Earth said they would also continue to challenge the airport expansion in the planning process.
“This judgment is no ‘green light’ for expansion,” said Will Rundle, head of legal at Friends of the Earth. “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."