Heathrow Third Runway: Friends of the Earth in Supreme Court to defend historic victory for climate

Press release
Friends of the Earth will today commence its defence of its historic victory against Heathrow Airport’s third runway plans.
  Published:  06 Oct 2020    |      5 minute read

"The UK must invest in low-carbon, resilient infrastructure and create green jobs in sectors such as clean transport, renewable energy and home insulation.” Jenny Bates, Friends of the Earth 

  • Friends of the Earth to hold socially distanced photo call outside Supreme Court at 08:30 on 7 October.
  • Hearing at Supreme Court to take place digitally on 7 and 8 October. Watch live stream here. Verdict expected later this year or early 2021. 
  • For full legal briefing including summary of arguments and potential outcomes click here 

Friends of the Earth will today (7 October) commence its defence of its historic victory against Heathrow Airport’s third runway plans.  

The government’s decision to expand Heathrow Airport was ruled ‘unlawful’ by the Court of Appeal, on climate change grounds, in February 2020. This followed a successful legal challenge by environmental organisation Friends of the Earth, represented by Leigh Day. Plan B also brought a successful legal challenge and will be challenging this appeal too. 

Heathrow Airport Limited was granted permission to appeal at the Supreme Court, while the Secretary of State for Transport did not seek permission and has now dropped out of the case. So too has developer Arora Holdings. Unsuccessful cases brought by Greenpeace and the Mayor of London have already been dismissed. 

Will Rundle, head of legal at Friends of the Earth, said: 

“Without the government in the picture, this case has become one about business interests versus the wellbeing of people everywhere facing the impact of the climate crisis. 

“The Court of Appeal rightly ruled against the expansion of Heathrow, and we’re now here to defend our historic win for the planet. The government accepted illegal advice to ignore the Paris Climate Agreement when making the initial decision to approve the third runway. Heathrow is now trying to completely ignore this fact with its appeal. 

“We are pleased that the Supreme Court will now make an authoritative ruling and remain confident the court will re-affirm that the Paris Agreement cannot be ignored, and all the damaging climate impacts of Heathrow expansion must be fully considered in any decision.” 

Jenny Bates, climate campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: 

“As we plan for a future in the wake of the dreadful COVID-19 pandemic, it’s key that the UK invests in low-carbon, resilient infrastructure and creates green jobs in sectors such as clean transport, renewable energy and home insulation. A new runway at Heathrow is the opposite of what we need to be building. It would lead to a huge increase in emissions and undermine the UK’s duty to fight the climate crisis. 

“Heathrow has talked up easy fixes to get the Third Runway pushed through, but these fixes rely on undeveloped technology, and ineffective carbon offsetting to make their plans appear more climate friendly.” 

The government’s latest plan to boost the economy is a massive missed opportunity to deliver a green and fair recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

Rowan Smith, solicitor in the environmental law team at law firm Leigh Day, said: 

“We trust that the Supreme Court will agree with the Court of Appeal when it concluded that there was absolutely no legal means by which the Government could ignore its international climate change commitments under the Paris Agreement.

“They made it clear that such an omission fatally undermined the lawfulness of the policy to allow a third runway at Heathrow Airport. 

“The Lord Justices simply followed the legal framework set by Parliament and found that the Secretary of State was legally bound to consider the Paris Agreement which was so obviously material to a decision on Heathrow Airport expansion.” 

In its historic ruling (in February 2020) the designation of the Airports National Policy Statement (ANPS) was found unlawful by the Lord Justices of appeal. In their judgment, the Secretary of State for Transport (at the time Chris Grayling) had breached s10 of the Planning Act 2008, and acted irrationally in doing so, by disregarding the Paris Agreement, the non-CO2 warming impacts of aviation, and the effects of climate change beyond 2050, when making the ANPS to expand Heathrow. He also breached his duty to undertake a lawful strategic environmental assessment in accordance with the requirements of the SEA Directive and the SEA Regulations. 

The Court ruled that the case was one of “exceptional public interest”, noting that "the issue of climate change is a matter of profound national and international importance of great concern to the public – and, indeed, to the Government of the United Kingdom and many other national governments, as is demonstrated by their commitment to the Paris Agreement." 

Previous polling* for Friends of the Earth found 64% of people, after being told the potential benefits and negatives, are concerned about the climate impact of building a third runway at Heathrow Airport. The same survey found that only 1 in 4 people support the plans for a third runway. 


  1. For full legal briefing including summary of arguments and potential outcomes click here.   
  2. Friends of the Earth are represented by law firm Leigh Day and barristers David Wolfe QC of Matrix Chambers, Peter Lockley of 11 Kings Bench Walk Chambers and Andrew Parkinson of Landmark Chambers. 
  3. The High Court ruled on 1 May 2019 that the government’s decision to allow the building of a third runway at Heathrow Airport was lawful. This followed legal challenges brought by a number of environmental NGOs, pressure groups and local councils which were heard collectively by the court in March 2019.  
  4. In October 2019 The Court of Appeal heard Friends of the Earth’s appeal against the High Court’s decision that the government had not breached its sustainable development duties by allowing the expansion of Heathrow. 
  5. Environmental group Friends of the Earth brought one of the two successful legal challenges in the proceedings, focusing on the climate change and sustainable development impacts of a third runway.  
  6. Friends of the Earth successfully argued that the decision to make the ANPS breached the Secretary of State for Transport’s sustainable development duty in failing to have regard to the desirability of mitigating climate change for future generations. This was specifically due to: not considering the UN’s Paris Agreement,  nor climate impacts of the project beyond 2050 when the lifetime of the project is expected to run until 2085, and also the failure to factor in any impact from the non-CO2 contribution of aviation to climate breakdown, in breach of the precautionary principle. 
  7. *Survey data from YouGov Plc.  Total sample size was 2,017 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 4-6 October 2019.  The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+). 
    • The survey asked people about their level of concern, and whether they support or oppose the expansion, after respondents were shown the following text: "There are currently plans for a third runway to be built at Heathrow Airport. The additional runway would put 700 more planes into the sky each day - 50% more than the airport currently does. It has been suggested that this will bring certain benefits by creating new jobs and domestic flight routes, but it will also contribute to climate change and negatively impact those living around Heathrow Airport.”