Plans for a controversial third runway at Heathrow airport — seen as symbolic at a time when carbon emissions are so much in the spotlight — were ruled illegal on Thursday, as the court of appeal declared it contravened existing commitments to tackle the climate crisis.
It’s a rare triumph for climate activists in the UK that may very well go on to set a new global precedent for how campaigners can call on the Paris Agreement to hold their governments to account.
The Paris Agreement — ratified by Boris Johnson himself when he was foreign secretary — outlines internationally-agreed plans to limit temperature rises over the next century. It targets keeping increases “well below” 2C and aims to limit to 1.5C wherever possible.
But legal charity Plan B argued in court that the government had failed to consider how the plans would affect climate targets.
While former transport secretary Chris Grayling had previously said the Paris Agreement was “not relevant” to the third runway, the court of appeal instead ruled that it is.
Plan B was one of many organisations to launch the case. Others included environmental charities Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, and the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan.
“Heathrow third runway ruled illegal over climate change.”— Greta Thunberg (@GretaThunberg) February 27, 2020
Imagine when we all start taking the Paris Agreement into account... https://t.co/7ostsjadKF
It's reportedly the world's first major ruling to be based on the Paris Agreement, according to the Guardian. And for campaigners, it’s a positive step in holding the government accountable to its own climate pledges — especially after Britain became the first country in the world to legally commit to achieving net zero emissions by 2050.
And it seems likely that such a case will be the first of many, as climate activists globally wrestle with corporations and government bodies to ensure that environmental targets are met.
The third runway would have meant an extra 260,000 flights a year — 700 every day — passing through London. Experts have previously noted that the carbon emissions from such vast increases in aviation capacity would have almost certainly made Britain’s reduction targets logistically impossible to meet.
“The court ruling is bad news for all businesses and investors in the carbon economy, who will have to factor in the increasing risks of legal challenges,” Tim Crosland from Plan B told the Guardian. “But really it is good news for everyone, since all of us – including businesses and investors – depend on maintaining the conditions which keep the planet habitable.”
BREAKING - Heathrow third runway ruled illegal over climate change— Greenpeace UK (@GreenpeaceUK) February 27, 2020
Plans for a third runway at Heathrow have been ruled illegal by the court of appeal because ministers did not adequately take into account the government’s climate change commitments.https://t.co/Y15cWQkrnFpic.twitter.com/hg5eIVDqtF
The government will reportedly not appeal the result, though Heathrow will take the decision to the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the Guardian reports that the UK government could now choose to either ditch the project or create new policies to resurrect it.
“No amount of spin from Heathrow’s PR machine can obscure the carbon logic of a new runway,” said John Sauven, Greenpeace UK’s executive director, in a statement released to Global Citizen. “Their plans would pollute as much as a small country.”
“Boris Johnson should now put Heathrow out of its misery and cancel the third runway once and for all,” he added. “No ifs, no buts, no lies, no u-turns,” — a reference to a speech made by former prime minister David Cameron when he previously promised there would be no runway, only to pave the way for it to be approved.
Sauven also advocated for a frequent flyer levy, pointing out that most UK flights are taken by just 10% of the population, while half of the country does not fly at all.
me when Heathrow first announced 3rd runway vs me today pic.twitter.com/QodcnohCxX— Jim Pickard (@PickardJE) February 27, 2020