Heathrow Wins Supreme Court Ruling Over Third-Runway Plans

Heathrow Airport’s plan to expand was green-lighted after the U.K. Supreme Court ruled the government’s support for a third runway didn’t violate its climate-change policy.

The court ruled Wednesday that the U.K. had properly considered its commitments under the Paris Agreement, meaning its support for another runway at Europe’s busiest hub was legal. The judges overturned a lower court ruling, which forced the government to review its airport policy in light of environmental legislation.

The decision comes as the London airport grapples with a dramatic fall in passengers during the coronavirus pandemic. In May, Heathrow Chief Executive Officer John Holland-Kaye told lawmakers that the expansion could be delayed five years or more as a result of the outbreak.

U.K. minister Chris Grayling “acted rationally and in compliance with his legal obligations” when preparing an environmental report that accompanied the U.K.’s support for the runway, Judge Philip Sales said Wednesday.

Heathrow said after the ruling that despite the pandemic, the third runway is a vital part of its long-term plans.

Questions of Demand

“Demand for aviation will recover from Covid-19, and the additional capacity at an expanded Heathrow will allow Britain as a sovereign nation to compete for trade,” the airport said in a statement.

On Tuesday, a lawyer and climate campaigner involved in the case appeared to breach an embargo on the ruling that may be considered to be a contempt of court.

In a statement published on Twitter, Tim Crosland, a director for one of the environmental groups that brought the case, said he had “no choice but to protest the deep immorality of the court’s ruling” and said the judgment “has betrayed us all.”

The decision was given after the airport operator spent years trying to win permission to expand to an annual capacity of 142 million passengers. Last year, it catered to about 81 million, an increase of just 1% due to a shortage of slots.

As a result of the ongoing global pandemic, the number of passengers passing through Heathrow was down 88% in November, and 72% year-to-date. Holland-Kaye said last month that further job losses are likely on top of a 30% cut in management. This month, workers began a series of one-day strikes to protest wage cuts.

“Heathrow expansion remains very far from certain and we now look forward to stopping the third runway in the planning arena,” Will Rundle, head of legal at Friends of the Earth, one of the groups opposing the expansion, said by email.

Belated Legal Win

Heathrow has “squeaked out a belated legal win, but history has moved on,” Greenpeace’s John Sauven said by email. “Now the ball is in the government’s court. It’s hard to imagine Boris Johnson wanting to resurrect a project that makes no business or environmental sense.”

The U.K.’s Transport department didn’t immediately respond to a request seeking comment.

The government’s independent adviser, the Climate Change Committee, has recommended that Britain has no net growth of airport capacity in the next three decades so it can meet its mid- and long-term climate-change targets. That means any airport expansion should be balanced by reductions elsewhere.

Earlier this month, Prime Minister Johnson committed the country to cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 68% by 2030, compared with 1990 levels, to ensure it meets its target to zero out pollution by 2050.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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