The problem with Heathrow expansion

The issue of Heathrow expansion is a major environmental headache. Head of Legal at Friends of the Earth, Will Rundle, recaps details from this long-running saga, and explains why it's a social justice issue.
By Will Rundle    |      Published:  14 Jan 2020    |      3 minute read

Heathrow is already one of the biggest single sources of greenhouse gases in the UK, and yet government, big business and Heathrow plan to increase its contribution to climate breakdown by building a third runway.

We all know we are in a climate emergency. Expanding Heathrow would lock us in to a long-lived high carbon infrastructure, threatening the urgent action we need to tackle climate breakdown. It would signify misery for the surrounding area: local people already endure bad air pollution, and the noise and disruption of approximately 1,300 planes taking off at Heathrow daily. Expansion will mean around 700 more flights per day, and many people would even lose their homes if it’s built.

And that’s not all. Expansion would also all but blow our chances of meeting our targets for cutting emissions, bidding farewell to safer levels of global warming, and undermining the Paris Climate Agreement (COP 21).

The addition of a third runway is hailed as being economically beneficial to the UK, but the benefit is dubious at best, and has been contested by the New Economics Foundation. Are we as a society OK with communities suffering for corporate enrichment and frequent flyer convenience? Climate breakdown (and the Heathrow expansion) will harm entirely innocent people at home and abroad, whether they fly or not.

Who's responsible?

It’s a problematic minority of the population ("frequent flyers" – those who take around 3 return flights or more a year) who are disproportionately adding to the dangerous climate problem all of us have to face. The Guardian newspaper  reported in 2019 on Department for Transport statistics that:

"Just 1% of English residents are responsible for nearly a fifth of all flights abroad…

"The figures, published in a Department for Transport survey, also reveal that the 10% most frequent flyers in England took more than half of all international flights in 2018. However, 48% of the population did not take a single flight abroad in the last year."

Unfortunately for us, instead of addressing this unfairness, the Department for Transport is happy for it to continue, and even increase the damage caused with a new third runway at Heathrow.

Who's fighting Heathrow?

There are many community organisations who have been battling the Heathrow monster over a considerable number of years, including our amazing West London Groups Network, who oppose expansion due to the clear and unacceptable impacts on the environment and their wellbeing.

Our approach to legal interventions has been to lend support to those efforts and strengthen community voices at critical points. We’ve represented Heathrow campaign groups to knock back injunctions that stifled protest, and more recently we have fought expansion of a third runway on the grounds that it will contribute further to climate breakdown. This expansion would contradict the needs of future generations for a safer climate by selfishly pursuing development that harms our planet.

Environmental justice

As we await the all-important court ruling on our Heathrow expansion appeal, I want to highlight the environmental justice aspect of our case.

We understand environmental justice (or ”climate justice” in this context) to mean socially fair and inclusive answers to the environmental problems we face, both at home and abroad. Friends of the Earth has an ambitious goal of ensuring that the next generation enjoys an environment that is getting better, and so environmental justice in the Heathrow context means ensuring that any development does not impinge on the rights of future generations to a safer climate. This is important because to attain environmental justice we need a balanced and fair approach to climate change that does not "kick the can down the road" and force others to deal with harsher impacts in the future.

Why should this matter to you? Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but it’ll be your children and grandchildren, or those of your friends, who pick up the tab and bear the greatest brunt of future climate impacts.

In challenging Heathrow’s third runway, we accused the Secretary of State in court of illegally contradicting those rights.

The Secretary of State accepted it had created a policy framework for Heathrow expansion that failed to consider the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement or the non-CO2   warming impacts of aviation. These are not theoretical considerations – the failure to factor these in will bite hard at some point in the future.

A fair fight

We want to stop climate breakdown and the damage it wreaks on people and communities, but we also want to achieve greater fairness in our society in how we deal with major environmental problems. When we spoke about "sustainable development" in court, this is what we meant: sustained fairness for impacted communities and for future generations, rather than satisfying our own selfish short-term goals for supposed economic development.

In the celebrated words of the UN Brundtland Commission Report 1987 "Our Common Future":

"Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

We need that to happen so we can achieve environmental justice at Heathrow.

The Court of Appeal will issue its judgement soon.

Our lawyer Katie de Kauwe explains more about our work on the right to protest.

Your donation will help grow our grassroots network that's dedicated to protecting people and planet.

Your donation will help grow our grassroots network that's dedicated to protecting people and planet.