What is the latest update on the Heathrow third runway?

The third runway at Heathrow has been a controversial project since it was first suggested. There are those who can see many benefits, not least for the construction and business sectors, in adding this extra capacity but others have highlighted the environmental impact this could have. As of February 2020 the High Court has also had its say, ruling that a third runway at Heathrow airport is illegal because the commitments to tackling the climate crisis were not properly taken into account when the plans were first drawn up. So where does that leave the project as a whole?

Net zero emissions by 2050

Climate change is at the top of the agenda for many people right now. The government has committed to reaching a target of net zero emissions by 2050 and climate emergencies have been declared across the planet. However, there have not been many other rulings where the courts have started to integrate this into decision making. In fact, the High Court’s decision is the first major ruling in the world to be based on the Paris climate agreement and could set a precedent for those who are keen to challenge other high carbon projects.

What can the government do now?

According to transport secretary, Grant Shapps increasing the capacity of UK airports is core to boosting global connectivity and levelling up across the country. However, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has not previously been behind the project. In fact he once said that he would lie down in front of the bulldozers in order to stop it going ahead. So, the High Court ruling could work well for Johnson who – it has been rumoured – has been looking for a reason to end the project for some time. He may use this as an opportunity to further increase support for HS2 by suggesting that Birmingham airport provide the additional capacity that London requires once the new train line is up and running. Essentially, the government will have the option of abandoning the project altogether or creating a new policy document to approve the runway.

Why did the High Court make this decision?

It all comes down to the Paris Agreement. This was signed in 2016 and is essentially the document that establishes a commitment by signatory countries to mitigating the impact of global warming. Up to now many governments have claimed to be committed to the terms of the Paris Agreement without actually ensuring that actions taken don’t directly contradict its aims. What the High Court has done is effectively draw a line in the sand where compliance is concerned. Lord Justice Lindblom said: “The Paris agreement ought to have been taken into account by the secretary of state. The national planning statement was not produced as the law requires.”

The government has said that it won’t appeal the High Court decision that the third runway is illegal due to climate change. It remains to be seen how it will choose to fulfil the goals of that development instead.

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