The British government’s plan to build a third runway at Heathrow Airport have been ruled illegal by a U.K. court of appeal on the grounds that the plans do not take into account the country’s climate change commitments under the Paris Agreement.
The government can appeal the decision, but has so far declined to do so according to the judge. The future of the project is now uncertain. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who took office last summer, has differed from his Conservative predecessors and vocally opposed the runway. In 2015 Johnson said he would “lie down in front of those bulldozers and stop the construction”. He may use the ruling as justification for abandoning the project.
Heathrow is the biggest airport in Europe, with 80 million passengers per year. The £14 billion ($18 billion) third runway project would have been completed by 2028. The government estimates it could add capacity of 700 more planes per day to the airport, which is currently operating over capacity.
“The Paris Agreement ought to have been taken into account by the Secretary of State,” said Lord Justice Keith Lindblom in the ruling. “The national planning statement was not produced as the law requires.” The lord justice said the government has already seen the ruling in advance and has not so far sought permission to appeal the case the the U.K. Supreme Court.
Specifically, the plans were deemed to not have shown compatibility with the U.K.’s Climate Change Act, which transposes the Paris Agreement commitments into law and promises to reduce emissions to net zero by 2050.
The ruling will call into question expansion plans at other airports, not only in the U.K. but in other countries which have transposed the Paris Agreement commitments into law – which will soon include every country in the European Union. The European Commission will next week put forward binding legislation putting its own 2050 net zero target into law.
A spokesperson for the airport said they do not view the ruling as a death blow to the project: “The Court of Appeal dismissed all appeals against the government – including on noise and air quality – apart from one which is eminently fixable. We will appeal to the Supreme Court on this one issue and are confident that we will be successful. In the meantime, we are ready to work with the government to fix the issue that the court has raised.”
Last week the airport announced it has met its goal of becoming carbon-neutral by 2020. But the goal only concerns emissions produced by the airport itself, not the planes taking off and landing on its runways. The airport, which also has plans to reduce emissions to zero by 2030, says it has reduced carbon emissions by 93% since 1990 through £100 million in investments to improve energy efficiency and use renewable energy.
But campaign group Greenpeace says they believe the ruling is the final nail in the coffin for the third runway project. “The third runway is already on its knees over costs, noise, air pollution, habitat loss and lack of access, and now Heathrow Ltd has yet another impossibly high hurdle to clear,” said John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace UK.
“No amount of spin from Heathrow’s PR machine can obscure the carbon logic of a new runway. 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. No ifs, no buts, no lies, no u-turns.”