MIAMI – Overturning a lower court ruling, the British Supreme Court approved a plan to add a third runway at London’s Heathrow Airport (LHR).

The Court of Appeals had earlier ruled against the plan as it did not meet the UK’s up-to-date climate strategies. But the Supreme Court said that the plan met less stringent climate rules that were in place at the time of the agreement.

Heathrow Limited, the firm behind the campaign, can now seek planning permission for the runway. reports that in February, the Court of Appeal found that the government’s policy framework for LRH expansion – the airports national policy statement (ANPS) finalized in 2018 – had failed to take into account the UK’s Paris Agreement commitment to reduce warming to “well below” 2C. Campaigners had celebrated that victory, saying it stopped the third runway “dead in its tracks”. 

Ruling Explained

But although the UK government accepted the court’s conclusion, Heathrow Airport Ltd appealed, arguing that an international treaty such as the Paris Agreement cannot be made government policy until it is entered into domestic law. The UK’s target for becoming net zero by 2050 was set in June 2019 – one year after the ANPS was approved.

Judges at the Supreme Court said the government’s reasoning had been “plainly rational and lawful”. They said then Transport Secretary Chris Grayling had followed the advice of the Committee on Climate Change, which advises the government on climate matters, and had properly accounted for the UK’s domestic emissions obligations as enshrined in the Climate Change Act 2008. “Further reference to the Paris Agreement was not required,” said the judgment.

Nor had the government failed to properly account for emissions after the year 2050 or non-CO2 emissions from LHR expansion, the Supreme Court concluded. The case was brought by campaign groups Plan B and Friends of the Earth.

Tim Crosland, Director of Plan B, broke an embargo to reveal the court’s decision a day early saying the Supreme Court’s judgment, “which has legitimised Mr Grayling’s use of the deadly 2C threshold, has betrayed us all”. 

But he pointed out that the airport’s expansion still faces a number of practical hurdles.

Image: Wiki Commons

Hurdles Remain

Heathrow Airport Ltd would also have to obtain a development consent order before work can progress, according to the report. The Supreme Court said that process would need to consider current climate obligations, including the UK’s current net zero target, so the order is likely to face legal challenges of its own.

The airport also has to meet strict air quality and noise rules.The BBC reports that the runway plan still faces major obstacles, including having to persuade a public inquiry of the case for expansion. And if planning inspectors approve the scheme, the government will still have the final say.

London Heathrow Airport. Photo from Wikipedia.

Opponents Will Still Fight

Will Rundle, head of legal at Friends of the Earth, said the judgment was no “green light” for airport expansion. “It makes clear that full climate considerations remain to be addressed and resolved at the planning stage. Heathrow expansion remains very far from certain and we now look forward to stopping the third runway in the planning arena.”

In a statement, LHR said the decision was “the right result for the country”. “Heathrow has already committed to net zero and this ruling recognizes the robust planning process that will require us to prove expansion is compliant with the UK’s climate change obligations, including the Paris Climate Agreement, before construction can begin.” 

But Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, who has opposed the third runway, said he was disappointed at the decision “which will have a damaging impact on air quality, noise and London’s ability to achieve net-zero carbon by 2030”.

Featired image: LHR