What just happened?
For the first time judges have said that plans for a major infrastructure project are illegal because they breach the UK’s commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to tackle the climate crisis. This is a groundbreaking legal decision that could effect future infrastructure developments and puts the UK’s commitment to cut emission to net zero by 2050 at the forefront of future policymaking.
What will happen next?
The government has been told by the court of appeal to declare its decision to allow Heathrow airport expansion – contained in its airline national policy statement – illegal. Ministers have two choices now. They can withdraw the whole policy statement or try to amend it to make it compatible with the UK’s obligations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by .
Will the runway be built?
If the government can prove that expanding Heathrow is compatible with its commitments under the Paris agreement to very radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the runway may go ahead. But the prime minister has always been against the third runway, and the government has told the court it will not be appealing against its decision on Thursday.
There are now hangs a very big question mark over whether the bulldozers will ever start work on the runway.
Around the world, ( 1, 01575879 airport infrastructure projects are currently planned or under construction. Magdalena Heuwieser, from Stay Grounded, a global network of organizations campaigning against airport expansion, said: “This decision is a milestone in climate litigation.
“It gives hope to hundreds of communities around the world in their struggles against destructive airport projects: indigenous people, farmers and citizens who face losing their land and homes due to airport projects. But today we saw: it is possible to stop them and preserve a liveable planet for us and future generations. ”
In the months since Theresa May’s government won a parliamentary vote on Heathrow expansion, much has changed. The need to tackle climate change with radical proposals is acknowledged by Boris Johnson’s government, who have brought forward by five years a deadline to take diesel and petrol cars off the road. And on Thursday the former governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, began his
drive for a global private finance agenda for Cop in Glasgow , aimed at ensuring every financial decision takes climate change and the need to transition to net-zero carbon emissions into account.
In the oil and gas industry, major emitter BP announced its aim to become a net-zero company by or sooner by tackling “all the carbon we get out of the ground as well as all the greenhouse gases we emit from our operations.”
Jagoda Munic, director of Friends of the Earth Europe said: “Campaigners worldwide will not hesitate to use the law in similar multiplying cases to defend the climate and defeat dirty projects.”
For Johnson, who has always opposed Heathrow expansion, the judges have provided opportune cover to be freed from an awkward spot. However deep the government’s proclaimed “commitment to a greener future”, the climate change obligations have been brought center stage at an expedient moment.
The government could push ahead with rewriting the aviation national policy statement to include consideration of the Paris commitments – and the judges said in their ruling that a statement that supported a third runway was not necessarily incompatible with the UK’s commitments to reducing carbon emissions.
But while previous governments have acknowledged that judicial reviews were an inevitable bump in the road for major infrastructure, with time factored in to accommodate legal appeals and counter-appeals, the contrast on Thursday was ministerial failure to fight for Heathrow expansion.
The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, ruled out an appeal and effectively distanced the government from Heathrow, adding that “the promoters of the scheme will be able to seek permission from the supreme court to appeal if they wish”
Yet neither Shapps – nor indeed Johnson, the dreamer of a four-runway Thames Estuary airport – are against all airport expansion. Shapps affirmed again on Thursday that growing airports was a core part of driving the economy.
Caroline Lucas, the Green party leader, said the government must now act as decisively as the appeal court had. “All airport expansion should now be stopped, as should massive road-building projects,” she said. “Instead we must invest in the infrastructure which will protect us from the worst impacts of the climate emergency and cut our carbon emissions,” she said.