Heathrow Royal Courts Justice 2020

Heathrow third runway: UK government actions ruled "illegal"

Friends of the Earth has won a historic legal battle to protect the climate from Heathrow expansion and push government to act in accordance with the climate emergency. But what does this mean?
  Published:  27 Feb 2020    |      2 minute read

The Court of Appeal has ruled that government acted illegally in their plans to expand Heathrow airport. This stops the climate wrecking plan dead in its tracks and holds government to account for acting in complete contradiction of the climate emergency at a time when we need urgent action.

The decision follows an ongoing legal battle over the project. In this case, Friends of the Earth successfully argued that the impact on the climate was not given due consideration (in line with legal requirements) when planning the expansion. In particular, that the Secretary of State chose not to factor in the Paris Agreement, nor the full scale of climate impacts aviation would create. They also didn’t account for the longer term climate impacts past 2050 (download the full legal briefing).

The climate battle against Heathrow

Friends of the Earth – alongside other organisations and many local campaigners – has been challenging plans to expand Heathrow since they were adopted in June 2018 (although the battle against Heathrow has been happening in different ways over many more years). In 2019 our legal team won the right to appeal previous High Court decisions in favour of government plans, specifically on the basis that the project went against legal duties to contribute to sustainable development and avoid climate breakdown.

The hearing for that appeal was in October 2019, and we’ve been waiting with bated breath ever since.

Is this a good result?

This is a great result for the environment, and an excellent example of how we can (and should) hold government to account on their damaging decisions. We’ve been opposed to expansion from the start, and it’s hard to overstate what a significant win this is.

Heathrow is already one of the single largest sources of emissions in the whole of the UK. The additional third runway would have meant around 700 extra flights per day, at a time when we should be investing in creating green jobs. It would have made government’s own targets of reducing carbon emissions and achieving net zero all but impossible to meet.

The fact that the court has ruled government broke the law by not considering the Paris Agreement, nor the full climate impacts of a third runway, is a huge step forward in ensuring they take their own climate commitments more seriously – for all our sakes. It’s also a massive climate justice win for present and future generations.

The Paris Agreement, or Paris Climate Deal, is a legally binding agreement between 196 countries to reduce carbon emissions and limit global warming to 1.5°C.

It also compels nations to address the loss and damage caused by climate impacts, and commits finance to help developing countries tackle and adapt to climate change.

The Agreement was reached at the UN climate talks in Paris (COP21) in 2015, and came into force the following year.

Whilst only the arguments made on the basis of the climate – by Friends of the Earth and Plan B – were upheld, the ruling will have tangible benefits to local communities who have been fighting expansion for years, and who would have suffered increased air pollution and noise levels (among other things) were the expansion to go ahead. Some people were even due to lose their homes for it to be built.

So, is Heathrow going to expand?

Heathrow’s expansion in its current form is over. We await news on any appeal. But right now government must either abandon the expansion entirely, or go back to the drawing board and give serious consideration to the climate impact in any future plans, in accordance with the law.

Despite grand claims about leading the fight against climate breakdown, the government has failed to truly pursue the solutions to climate breakdown. Such as investing in renewable energies, improving our public transport infrastructure, and doubling tree cover. They have consistently failed to take the climate emergency seriously in decision-making. Now they've been found to be acting illegally in doing so too.

In the year that Glasgow will host the international climate talks, the government must make climate breakdown a deal-breaker in every decision it makes.

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