On 27 February 2020, the Court of Appeal ruled that the government’s decision to proceed with building on the third runway were unlawful, due to government’s commitments to combat climate change under the Paris Agreement were not taken into account.[1] The Court of Appeal said the government failed to take its climate change commitments into account, a decision that leads to global implications.[2]

What are the reasons of the case?

Since 1990s, there is a series of proposals called “The expansion of Heathrow Airport” with an aim to add to the runways at London’s busiest airport.[3] The plans have been presented by Heathrow Airport Holdings and an independent proposal by Heathrow Hub with the main object of increasing capacity. [4]

In December 2006, the Department for Transport published a progress report on the strategy which confirmed the original vision of expanding the runways. [5] Then in November 2007 the government started a public consultation on its proposal for a slightly shorter third runway, as well as a new passenger terminal. [6]

The plan was publicly supported by many businesses, the aviation industry, the British Chambers of Commerce, the Confederation of British Industry, the Trades Union Congress and the then Labour government. It was publicly opposed by Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties as opposition parties and then as a coalition government, by Boris Johnson , many environmental, local advocacy groups and prominent individuals.[7] However, in 2010 the expansion was cancelled by the new coalition government.[8]

Then on 25 October 2016, an expansion plan was adopted as central Government policy. In 2018, the resultant National Policy Statement: Airports was debated and voted in favour of 415 to 119 on by the House of Commons, within which outcome many local MPs, including a majority of those from London, opposed or abstained.[9]

In 2018, the government released the Airports National Policy Statement which explicitly backed a third runway at Heathrow airport.

A lot of campaign groups opposed to airport expansion, including Greenpeace, which responded with a series of judicial reviews.[10] These organisations challenged the decision on various grounds, such as air pollution, noise pollution and traffic increases.

The decision of UK Court of Appeal

On 27 February 2020, in an application for judicial review brought by environmental campaigning groups, London councils, and the Mayor of LondonSadiq Khan, the Court of Appeal ruled that the government’s decision to proceed with building the third runway were unlawful, as the government’s commitments to combat climate change under the Paris Agreement were not taken into account. [11]

In fact, the Paris Agreement is an agreement within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), dealing with greenhouse-gas-emissions mitigationadaptation, and finance, signed in 2016 and adopted by consensus on 12 December 2015, including the United Kingdom. [12]

In response, the government announced it would not appeal the decision, but Heathrow announced its intention to appeal the Supreme Court.[13]

What will happen next?

The 27th of February ruling comes from the court of appeal, which found that the government didn’t consider its commitments under the global Paris agreement to reduce emissions. [14]The court has ruled that climate change has to be factored into the government’s national aviation policy and that the Paris agreement could not be ignored. Above all, it shows that the government’s commitments under the Paris agreement have to be taken into account in national law.[15]

The judges said that in future a third runway could go ahead, as long as it fits with the UK’s climate policy. The case was brought by environmental groups, councils and the Mayor of London.[16]

 

The government would still be faced with the ambition to expand airports, while at the same time the need to bring down carbon emissions. [17]

If the government were treating the climate crisis with the seriousness it deserves, it would abandon airport expansion completely.[18]

This year the United Kingdom will host COP26, the global climate conference in which governments will hopefully commit to further action to put the brakes on the climate crisis. [19]

Oleksandra Miroshnychenko
Master 1 International Law – University Jean Moulin Lyon 3

Notes

[1] [2020] EWCA Civ 213 Case No: C1/2019/1154 IN THE COURT OF APPEAL (CIVIL DIVISION) ON APPEAL FROM THE QUEEN’S BENCH DIVISION DIVISIONAL COURT LORD JUSTICE HICKINBOTTOM, MR JUSTICE HOLGATE AND MR JUSTICE MARCUS SMITH [2019] EWHC 1069 (Admin) Royal Courts of Justice Strand, London, WC2A 2LL Date: 27 February 2020

[2] Ibid.

[3]  « Airports Commission Final Report: July 2015 ». Airports Commission. 1 July 2015. p. 100. Retrieved 25 February 2016.

[4] « Transport Secretary’s statement to the House of Commons, 15th January 2009 ». Department of Transport. Archived from the original on 6 March 2009. Retrieved 16 January 2009.

[5] Graham SimonsMartin W. Bowman, “London’s Airports”, Casemate Publishers, 17/02/2011

[6] Ibid.pp.123

[7] « Heathrow third runway plans scrapped by new government ». BBC News. 12 May 2010. Retrieved 12 July 2013;  « Airports commission – final report ». UK Government. 1 July 2015. Retrieved 28 July 2015

[8] « Airports commission – final report ». UK Government. 1 July 2015. Retrieved 28 July 2015

[9] National Policy Statement: Airports, 25 June 2018, Volume 643

[10] Jamie Woolley, “Heathrow third runway decision: what happened and what does it mean?”, 27/02/2020, < https://www.greenpeace.org.uk/news/heathrow-third-runway-court-decision/>

[11] [2020] EWCA Civ 213 Case No: C1/2019/1154 IN THE COURT OF APPEAL (CIVIL DIVISION) ON APPEAL FROM THE QUEEN’S BENCH DIVISION DIVISIONAL COURT LORD JUSTICE HICKINBOTTOM, MR JUSTICE HOLGATE AND MR JUSTICE MARCUS SMITH [2019] EWHC 1069 (Admin) Royal Courts of Justice Strand, London, WC2A 2LL Date: 27 February 2020

[12] « Paris Agreement ». United Nations Treaty Collection. 8 July 2016. Archivedfrom the original on 21 August 2016. Retrieved 27 July 2016

[13] [2020] EWCA Civ 213 Case No: C1/2019/1154 IN THE COURT OF APPEAL (CIVIL DIVISION) ON APPEAL FROM THE QUEEN’S BENCH DIVISION DIVISIONAL COURT LORD JUSTICE HICKINBOTTOM, MR JUSTICE HOLGATE AND MR JUSTICE MARCUS SMITH [2019] EWHC 1069 (Admin) Royal Courts of Justice Strand, London, WC2A 2LL Date: 27 February 2020

[14] Ibid.

[15] Jamie Woolley, “Heathrow third runway decision: what happened and what does it mean?”, 27/02/2020, < https://www.greenpeace.org.uk/news/heathrow-third-runway-court-decision/>

[16] Ibid.

[17] Tom Espiner, “Climate campaigners win Heathrow expansion case” Business reporter, BBC News, < https://www.bbc.com/news/business-51658693>

[18] Ibid.

[19] Jamie Woolley, “Heathrow third runway decision: what happened and what does it mean?”, 27/02/2020, < https://www.greenpeace.org.uk/news/heathrow-third-runway-court-decision/>