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Thursday, March 04, 2021

Explained: Why the Heathrow third runway project is in legal trouble

The UK Court of Appeals has held that the government’s decision to allow the Heathrow expansion was unlawful. However, this might not be the end of the road for the project.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: March 1, 2020 2:01:50 pm
Heathrow third runway, Heathrow airport expansion plans, Heathrow airport court ruling, Grant Shapps, Boris Johnson, express explained, indian express Campaigners cheer outside the Royal Courts of Justice after it blocked Heathrow expansion plans, in London on February 27. (Photo: AP)

In a bid to increase the number of flights it operates, authorities at the Heathrow airport in London have wanted to build a third runway for years. On Thursday (February 27), the Court of Appeals held that the UK government’s decision to allow it was unlawful.

Does this mean the runway cannot be built at all? Yes and no, depending on whether the UK fulfills its climate commitments.

After Thursday’s verdict, the Heathrow airport said it will move Supreme Court.

“The Court of Appeal dismissed all appeals against the government – including on “noise” and “air quality” – apart from one which is eminently fixable. We will appeal to the Supreme Court on this one issue and are confident that we will be successful. In the meantime, we are ready to work with the Government to fix the issue that the court has raised. Heathrow has taken a lead in getting the UK aviation sector to commit to a plan to get to Net Zero emissions by 2050, in line with the Paris Accord,” the airport said in a statement.

The UK government, on the other hand, has said it will not go to the Supreme Court.

On Thursday, Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps posted on Twitter, “Airport expansion is core to boosting global connectivity. We also take seriously our commitment to the environment. This Govt won’t appeal today’s judgement given our manifesto makes clear any #Heathrow expansion will be industry led.”

In fact, Prime minister Boris Johnson in 2015 had offered to “lie down in front of the bulldozers” to stop the construction of the runway. He later toned down his opposition to the project.

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What is the runway expansion project?

Heathrow is one of the busiest airports in the world. Over 80 million passengers pass through it every year. The proposed expansion, to be privately financed, aims to add new long-haul destinations and domestic routes, resulting in more frequent flights and expanding UK’s capacity for export.

Since the government announced its support to the project in 2016, it has faced opposition from environmentalists and some local residents, over concerns of noise pollution and air quality.

In 2018, MPs voted in support of the expansion, when Johnson was out of the country.

The Airport Commission, in its 2015 report on the project, noted that the expansion provides a “unique opportunity” and that the additional income generated from it should be allocated in a “new way”, while also addressing its impacts on the local environment and communities.

The report proposed a ban on all night flights between 11:30 pm-6:00 am, building a “noise envelope”, compensating those who would lose their homes at full market value and an additional 25 per cent, introducing an aviation noise charge or levy, and the setting up of an independent aviation noise authority, among others.

What has the court said?

In its judgment, the court observed that the airport expansion is not incompatible with the UK’s commitment to reduce carbon emissions and mitigate climate change under the Paris Agreement. But it pointed out an omission.
The government’s decision on the Heathrow expansion was mentioned in a national policy statement entitled, “Airports National Policy Statement (ANPS)”. This document is required to have an explanation for how the project takes climate change into account.

While the ANPS mentioned domestic climate change targets, it missed out international aims, and was hence deemed “unlawful”.

In case the document is amended to include climate change considerations and UK’s commitments to the Paris Agreement, it may be possible that the runway expansion is undertaken.

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“The Paris Agreement ought to have been taken into account by the Secretary of State in the preparation of the ANPS and an explanation given as to how it was taken into account, but it was not,” the court said.

Further, the court made it clear that their decision is not concerned with the merits of expanding Heathrow by adding a third runway, “or any other alternative project, or of doing nothing at all to increase the United Kingdom’s aviation capacity. Those matters are the Government’s responsibility and the Government’s alone.”

What is the UK’s Paris Agreement Commitment?

The UK ratified the Paris Agreement in November 2016, with which it became a part of the effort to cut greenhouse gas emissions and keep global temperature rise to below two-degree Celsius by 2025.

Other countries to have signed the agreement include India, China and the US. The agreement also obligates developed countries to provide $100 billion a year in public and private finance to help developing countries cope with the effects of climate change.

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