Back To The Drawing Board: Heathrow’s Illegal Expansion Blocked

The UK’s Court of Appeal has ruled that proposals for Heathrow’s third runway are in breach of the nation’s legally binding climate change targets. Branded ‘illegal’, the plans for the expansion will now have to go back to the drawing board. This will come as a massive blow to airlines looking for more slots at the congested airport, many of whom were banking on the new runway for future growth plans.

Heathrow expansion blocked
Heathrow’s third runway has been ruled illegal by the UK’s Court of Appeal. Photo: Getty

What’s happening?

Today, the UK Court of Appeal sat to assess whether the proposed third runway at Heathrow was in breach of the nations’ climate change commitments. The plans, which were voted through previously, were challenged by various campaigners as being contrary to the UK’s legally binding CO2 reduction targets under the ratified Paris Agreement.

The decision was made that the third runway is indeed illegal, on the grounds of climate change commitments. The Court of Appeal ruled that any expansion to the airport is out of kilter with the government’s climate change commitments under the Paris Agreement. It’s the first court ruling in the world to be based on the agreement and could set a precedent for other carbon-intensive projects in future.

The UK government is expected to announce within a few hours whether they will appeal the decision or not. Prime Minister Boris Johnson was a vocal opponent to the third runway prior to taking office, but has since switched sides to lend support to the expansions. However, Sky News states that it is expected there will be no challenge to the ruling.

Heathrow expansion blocked

Regardless of the government’s stance, Heathrow Airport has released a statement declaring it will indeed challenge this ruling. It claims that the issue that ruled the expansion illegal is “eminently fixable” and that it will “get it done the right way, without jeopardizing the planet’s future”.

An environmental challenge

The challenge to Heathrow’s expansion was led by a legal charity called Plan B. Tim Crosland of the charity told the Guardian,

“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. 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.”

Plan B had argued that, under the Paris Agreement, the UK had ratified a target to reduce net carbon emissions to zero by 2050. They also claimed that the plans for the 3rd runway had failed to assess whether the new runway would impact on the Paris Agreement’s target of keeping global temperature rise below 2 degrees C.

Heathrow expansion blocked
Environmental campaigners gathered outside the Court this morning as the case was heard. Photo: Getty

But they weren’t the only opponents to the plan. Other legal challenges had been brought by local residents, by councils, by the Mayor of London and by various environmental groups including Friends of the Earth.

The parties argued that Chris Grayling, then the transport secretary, had ignored various pressing factors of the project when he approved it in 2018. These included things like air quality, noise pollution and traffic congestion. All appeals were dismissed, apart from the carbon reduction issue.

A little wiggle room

Although the plans, as they stand, have been firmly blocked by the Court of Appeal this morning, that’s not to say there will be no reissuing of other plans. Right now, the third runway needs to go back to the drawing board, but the appetite for expansion at Heathrow has not entirely died.

There is a little wiggle room in the negotiations, in that, if the airport and designers can show that the expansion can go ahead without breaching the Paris Agreement, it could end up seeking approval once again.

Heathrow expansion blocked
There was also a gathering of supporters, backing the Heathrow expansion. Photo: Getty

What is for sure is that the original 2026 target for the third runway opening is no longer realistic. In fact, anything sooner than 2030 would be a miracle. This will come as a huge blow for airlines looking to snap up coveted spots at Europe’s busiest airport, and in particular Virgin Atlantic who had already defined a wishlist of new flights to operate from their additional slots.

What do you think about the blocking of Heathrow’s third runway? Good or bad news? Let us know in the comments.

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