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Climate wrecking expansion must be opposed

Clive Lewis MP said in parliament last week that “no Government who aspire to tackle the climate crisis and to keep temperature rises below 1.5°C would ever allow Heathrow to happen”. Mr Lewis is right – it’s a scandal of epic, tragic proportions that this climate-wrecking expansion has been given the go-ahead.


For the people of Sipson, Harmondsworth and all the communities living near Heathrow airport, the most pressing concerns have rightly been the misery of noise and air pollution and the potential loss of their homes. Residents have long contended that climate change, too, is a massive concern, but the media reporting of Heathrow – let alone the parliamentary scrutiny – has studiously avoided the emissions elephant in the room.


And what an elephant. Heathrow is already, by a distance, the biggest source of global warming emissions in the UK. It’s responsible for putting more carbon in the atmosphere than Croatia, Kenya or Ghana. And yet the Government wants to increase capacity by 50%.

So while every other sector is expected to slash pollution in line with our domestic and international climate change commitments, Heathrow and aviation expansion in general is being backed to the hilt by a Government simultaneously calling itself a climate leader. What gives?


Assuming Ministers intend to comply with our legal climate obligations, one of three things is true. Either:


1) the Government is certain that every other bit of the economy can so rapidly reduce pollution to basically zero that there’s enough room in our progressively shrinking ‘carbon budgets’ to allow for more runways, or

2) it knows something we don’t know about the imminent commercial availability of short, medium and long haul electric planes, or

3) the very rationale behind expansion will be undermined by deliberate curbs on passenger demand in order to cut aviation’s emissions.


The first scenario seems unlikely. In an excoriating letter from the Committee on Climate Change, the Government’s recent over-achievements on economy-wide emissions reductions were written off as due entirely to techy accounting changes, the lingering effects of the recession (a smaller economy = less pollution) and – ironically – global warming (warmer winters means less pollution from heating). The CCC were clear that the policy indicators, the actual things the government should be proactively doing to cut pollution, were abysmally off track.


In other words, we have an awful lot of work to do just to keep pace with existing commitments, let alone the tougher, Paris-compliant targets inevitably coming down the line. Despite the public bluster, I doubt Ministers and officials genuinely believe we’ve got room to play with.


Scenario two again seems far-fetched. Recent excellent work by A Free Ride found that, even if any of the aircraft currently in development make it to commercial operation in the 2020s, not a single one is capable of flying more than 1,500km. Meanwhile, orders for conventional aircraft continue to roll in.


The third scenario, where demand for flights is not only suppressed but reversed by Government policy (perhaps via a high carbon price, or the Frequent Flier Levy) seems the most pie in the sky of the lot, given that it would render the bigger airport entirely redundant.


So assuming none of the above are in Ministers’ grand plans, what’s left? How on earth can fattening up of one of the world’s biggest airports be consistent with the urgent imperative, and legal obligations, to slash pollution?


That, in a nutshell, is one of the main questions Friends of the Earth is asking in our Judicial Review against the Government, the trial for which begins at the High Court next week.

Our contention is that by approving the Airports National Policy Statement last June, the Government acted unlawfully. It failed, in our view, to set out not only how the decision was consistent with existing domestic climate policy, but also how such a decision was squared with the wider principle of sustainable development, i.e. meeting the needs of the current population without jeopardising the lives of future generations. This comes most acutely into focus in the context of the Paris Climate Accord, now ratified by the UK and almost certain to result in tougher domestic pollution targets soon (perhaps this year), and the thorny but seemingly ignored issue of non-carbon greenhouse gases, neither of which appear to have been much concern of the NPS.


The Climate Change Act 2008 and the Planning Act 2008, from which these legal principles originate, are dear to our heart. Friends of the Earth supporters and local groups campaigned tirelessly in the mid-noughties for what became the world’s first climate law, as they did for planning laws to be amended such that major infrastructure decisions must take climate change into account.


Ten years on from these victories, we will now see whether the Judiciary agrees that these important legal pillars are being bypassed by a Government that talks a good climate talk, but is failing spectacularly to walk the walk by backing the jumbo polluter that is Heathrow’s third runway.


Oliver Hayes

Climate Change Campaigner

Friends of the Earth

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London, England
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