Heathrow airport expansion in tatters as judge slams 3rd runway plans | WWF

Heathrow airport expansion in tatters as judge slams 3rd runway plans

Posted on
26 March 2010
The UK government suffered a severe set-back after the High Court ruled that ministers' decision to give a green light to the proposed third runway at the airport in Heathrow, London, does not hold any weight. The judge dismissed the Government’s claims to the contrary as ‘untenable in law and common sense’.

Lord Justice Carnwath ruled that if the UK Government decides to push ahead with the runway project it must now review the climate change implications of Heathrow expansion, the economic case for a third runway, and the issue of how additional passengers would get to a bigger airport.

The UK Government’s entire aviation policy must now be reviewed to take into account the implications of the 2008 Climate Change Act. The judge found that “the claimants’ submissions add up, in my view, to a powerful demonstration of the potential significance of developments in climate change policy since the 2003 Air Transport White Paper. They are clearly matters which will need to be taken into account under the new Airports National Policy Statement.”(1)

On the economic case for Heathrow expansion the judget said that he would be ‘surprised’ if the recent tripling of the estimated cost to society of emitting carbon did not have ‘a significant effect’ on the economic case for the runway. The judge also said that “it makes no sense to treat the economic case as settled in 2003.”

The implications of today’s ruling are profound, not just for Heathrow but for airport expansion plans across the UK. Lord Justice Carnwath ruled that the 2003 Air Transport White Paper – the foundation of expansion plans across the country - is obsolete because it is inconsistent with the Climate Change Act 2008.

The judge expressed real concern over the “hardship caused to the local community by uncertainty” over the third runway. The coalition which brought the successful legal challenge is now calling on the Government to end the uncertainty and scrap the runway plans once and for all.

David Nussbaum, CEO of WWF-UK, said: "We are delighted with today’s judgement. It deals a body blow to the third runway, but more than that it makes it clear that the Government's whole policy of airport expansion must be reviewed in order to bring it into line with the Climate Change Act."

"Today's landmark ruling has implications that could resonate far wider than the aviation sector. For a judge to tell the Government that it cannot build huge pieces of carbon-intensive infrastructure without considering the long-term consequences is a resounding win in the fight to tackle climate change. It is also a further indication of the need for the UK to make a swift transition to a low carbon economy. WWF would now urge the Government to focus on green investment, encouraging alternative ways of connecting with people wherever possible, such as high speed rail and videoconferencing, rather than relying on carbon-heavy methods such as flying.”

Contacts:  Jo Sargent, WWF UK pr4ess office, +44 1483 412375/ 07867 697519


1.) National Policy Statements (NPSs) are a key part of the new planning system that was established by the Planning Act 2008. They are strategic planning documents will set out the national need for major infrastructure developments such as power stations, ports, airports, roads and transmission lines. When an application is submitted for such a development above a certain threshold, there will be a presumption in favour of granting permission. The Government has said it intends to publish a draft Airports NPS next year.

2.) Six local authorities in West London (Hammersmith and Fulham, Hounslow, Hillingdon, Richmond upon Thames, Wandsworth and Windsor & Maidenhead) are claimants to the challenge, alongside the local residents group (NoTRAG) and the national campaigning group against airport expansion HACAN. WWF-UK, Campaign to Protect Rural England and Greenpeace are also claimants. Transport for London is an independent party supporting the claim. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is an expert witness. The challenge is also supported by Kensington and Chelsea and the Mayor of London. The local authorities are all members of the 2M Group which comprises 24 local councils opposed to Heathrow expansion with a combined population of 5 million.

3.) The legal challenge was launched in April 2009 and the case was heard in the High Court at a rolled-up hearing on the 23rd – 25th February 2010.

4.) In February 2007, Greenpeace won a Judicial Review against the Government’s energy review which backed a new generation of nuclear power stations. As a result the government was forced to re-run the public consultation.

5.) If a third runway at Heathrow airport were to be built, the airport would become the largest single emitter of carbon dioxide in the UK. Unrestrained airport expansion would make it impossible for the UK to play its part in tackling climate change. The Government has committed the UK to cuts of at least 80% in CO2 emissions by 2050. Research from the respected Tyndall Centre shows that if the industry is allowed to expand as predicted, aviation emissions alone would make it impossible to meet this target.

6.) Aviation has a number of high-altitude impacts that increase its total warming effect on the climate. The Committee on Climate Change has recently suggested that aviation has a Global Warming Potential of around two, meaning that its total warming effect is twice that of its CO2 emissions alone.

7.) In December 2009, the Committee on Climate Change published a report with recommendations of how the Government target to reduce aviation emissions to 2005 levels by 2050 could be met. The Committee recommended that aviation growth needs to be limited to around half of that planned in the White Paper, but warned that the target may need to be further tightened in the future.

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