High Court hearing in climate change legal challenge to Heathrow expansion

Legal proceedings to commence on 11th March 2019, with demonstration taking place outside the High Court from 9am.
  Published:  08 Mar 2019    |      5 minute read

A legal challenge brought by a number of environmental NGOs, pressure groups and local councils against the government’s decision to allow the building of a third runway at Heathrow airport, will be heard at the High Court in the week beginning Monday 11th March 2019.

Friends of the Earth, represented by law firm Leigh Day, is leading on the climate change arguments. Their case is due to be heard on Wednesday 13th March 2019.

Friends of the Earth argue that the government’s decision to allow the expansion is unlawful, fundamentally because it failed to have regard to the desirability of mitigating climate change in the context of the UN’s Paris Agreement and the non-CO2 contribution of aviation to global warming. It is argued that this failure breaches sustainable development duties and ignores all the impacts on future generations, who will be left with the adverse consequences of unsustainable growth from aviation, which will increase climate impacts.

The go ahead for a third runway at Heathrow was made through the Airports National Policy Statement (NPS), the policy framework for expansion at Heathrow Airport devised by the Transport Secretary Chris Grayling.

In a hearing in January, the government was forced to admit that they were in possession of material that addressed the need for stricter targets on emissions in light of the Paris Agreement before it made its decision on the expansion of Heathrow, but it was not taken into account. This admission was made to defeat an application from Friends of the Earth for what could have been a potentially embarrassing disclosure of such material for the Government.

Laura MacKenzie, climate change campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said:

“The UK government claims to be a climate leader yet supports the pending emissions disaster that is the third runway at Heathrow. An expanded Heathrow Airport would put seven hundred extra planes a day into our skies, pumping millions of tonnes of carbon into our atmosphere. With the impacts of climate chaos already being suffered by millions around the world we simply cannot allow this to go ahead.”

William Rundle, Head of Legal at Friends of the Earth, said:

“Chris Grayling has lived up to his ‘failing’ moniker in a lot of areas, from ferries to rail timetables, but climate is his biggest failure of all. Grayling and the government have their heads firmly buried in the sand with Heathrow expansion whilst the climate crisis unfolds around us. We consider they have acted unlawfully and unfairly in not considering the true impact on future generations. There will be a bigger price for us all to pay if this goes ahead, which is not justified by increased profits for Heathrow Airport and a small number of frequent fliers going on even more trips.”

Rowan Smith, solicitor in the environmental law team at law firm Leigh Day, said:

“The absurdity of the government giving the greenlight to airport expansion, when all the signs it ignored pointed to the need to make even deeper CO2 cuts in order to avoid catastrophic climate change, is clear. As a result of this legal challenge brought by our clients, the government has already been forced to concede that it had material in its possession, which indicated more stringent emissions targets were likely to be necessary, before allowing the Heathrow expansion to go ahead. All this goes to show that the government fell dramatically short of its sustainable development duties and the decision to give the go ahead to the third runway was unlawful.”

The arguments that will be put forward by Leigh Day on behalf of Friends of the Earth in the High Court will state that the government’s Airports NPS is unlawful as it amounts to a breach of the UK’s climate change policy, as well as its sustainable development duties, due to the following:

  • it does not properly explain how it takes account of either domestic targets for greenhouse gas emission reduction under the Climate Change Act 2008 or limits on the carbon impact of aviation recommended by the Committee on Climate Change;
  • it does not factor in the Paris Agreement, which aims to limit global warming to well below 2°C and to pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5°C – more ambitious goals than those underpinning the UK’s existing climate change targets;
  • it fails to factor in the non-CO2 climate impacts of a third runway, such as the emission of nitrogen oxides, which generate warming effects of a similar magnitude to CO2 emissions;
  • it does not fully consider the likely impact on future generations of a third runway, who will be stranded with the climate-damaging infrastructure.