Heathrow wins Supreme Court fight over building third runway

The Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday 16 December that building a third runway at Heathrow would be legal. The decision by the UK’s top court overturns the decision made in February by the Court of Appeal.

The Court of Appeal had ruled that the proposed expansion of Heathrow was unlawful because it did not meet the Government’s international commitments on Climate Change. It said ministers had failed to take into account the UK’s commitments under the 2015 Paris climate accord, but the Supreme Court found this was not necessary.

Tim Crosland, a lawyer at Plan B, which brought the legal case against Heathrow, said: “The really damaging thing is the precedent for the other cases.”

Environmental campaigners were delighted by the Court of Appeal’s ruling in February, as it was the first significant ruling in the world to be based on the Paris climate agreement. Tim Crosland described it as “a really strong lever” in legal arguments against high-carbon infrastructure. He said Plan B is now considering an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.

Heathrow response

Heathrow’s response to the decision was:

‘This is the right result for the country, which will allow Global Britain to become a reality. Only by expanding the UK’s hub airport can we connect all of Britain to all of the growing markets of the world, helping to create hundreds of thousands of jobs…

‘Demand for aviation will recover from Covid, and the additional capacity at an expanded Heathrow will allow Britain as a sovereign nation to compete for trade and win against our rivals in France and Germany’.

“Deep immorality”

Tim Crosland broke the embargo on the court’s decision and put out a statement the day before it was due saying:

‘I have no choice but to protest the deep immorality of the Court’s ruling. 

‘Chris Grayling took his decision to approve Heathrow expansion in June 2018. That was two and a half years on from the Paris Agreement. Yet he assessed the climate impacts of Heathrow expansion against the historic temperature limit of 2˚C warming – which the UK Government and the international community had rejected as inadequate and dangerous in 2015. He did not inform the public or Parliament that that is what he did, but it became clear through the disclosure in this litigation that that is what he did.

Had he assessed Heathrow expansion against the 1.5˚C temperature goal in the Paris Agreement, he could not have approved it. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), global decarbonisation by 2050 would still leave a 50% chance of exceeding 1.5˚C (even assuming the rapid development of negative emission technologies). According to the Government’s own figures, Heathrow expansion would mean 40 million tonnes of CO2 by 2050, just from UK aviation. Those two figures can not be reconciled.

In February 2020, the Court of Appeal ruled that Mr Grayling should have relied on the Paris Agreement temperature limit (not the 2˚C limit) and consequently ruled his decision unlawful. Boris Johnson informed Parliament that the Government would accept that decision and abide by the Paris Agreement.

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