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Appeals Court Rules Heathrow Expansion Unlawful, Citing Paris Climate Treaty

The UK Court of Appeals on February 27th declared unlawful the Department of Transport’s approval of Heathrow Airport’s expansion plans, because the government “had not taken into account its own firm policy commitments on climate change under the Paris agreement.”

Several major news outlets posted same-day articles on the story including the UK Guardian, The Washington Post, NPR, and the Financial Times.

The Guardian hailed the court’s judgment as “the first major ruling in the world to be based on the Paris Agreement and may have an impact both in the UK and around the globe by inspiring challenges against other high-carbon projects.”

Environmental advocates were jubilant. “It is now clear that our governments can’t keep claiming commitment to the Paris agreement, while simultaneously taking actions that blatantly contradict it,” said Tim Crosland of Plan B, one of the plaintiffs along with Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and various local officials.

The decision’s “implications are global,” enthused international law professor Margaretha Wewerinke-Singh of Leiden University, in the Netherlands. “For the first time, a court has confirmed that the Paris agreement goal has binding effect.”

Prof Corinne Le Quéré, at the University of East Anglia, said she was “relieved” climate targets are “recognized in law.” Friends of the Earth declared the ruling a “groundbreaking result for climate justice and for future generations.” 

Swedish climate campaigner Greta Thunberg tweeted, “Imagine when we all start taking the Paris agreement into account.”

Technically, the Heathrow expansion is not dead. As NPR’s article explains, Lord Justice Lindblom ruled that the government’s failure to consider its climate commitments was illegal, not that airport expansion per se is illegal. “We have not found that a national policy statement supporting this project is necessarily incompatible with the United Kingdom’s commitment to reducing carbon emissions and mitigating climate change under the Paris Agreement, or with any other policy the Government may adopt or international obligation it may undertake,” he wrote.

Heathrow officials vowed to appeal the decision while also claiming they could expand Heathrow “the right way” and avoid conflict with the government’s climate commitments. That would be quite a trick. Commercially-viable low-carbon air travel does not yet exist, and the third runway was expected to increase Heathrow’s capacity by 700 planes per day and 60 million passengers per year by 2050.

If expansion is blocked, the potential economic downsides are considerable. The British business community has “long argued that congestion at the airport is holding back UK trade,” the Financial Times notes. “Business leaders, already concerned about the prospect of new trade barriers between the UK and EU, said the ruling sent a poor signal about the country’s ambitions to be a global trading nation and urged the government to find a way to push ahead with expansion.”

Heathrow management also “warned that blocking its expansion would make the UK less attractive to business. It points out Heathrow’s long-held position as the biggest airport in Europe is under threat from Charles de Gaulle in Paris, which will overtake it within two years.” Federation of Small Businesses spokesman Mike Cherry called the verdict “a blow to small firms who need greater regional and global connectivity, as well as more opportunities to export.”

Whatever UK authorities ultimately decide, this much is clear. Although Paris Treaty commitments purport to be “voluntary,” “non-binding,” and “non-enforceable” under international law, membership in the agreement entails considerable legal risk.

Governments cannot pledge to meet the objectives of a treaty allegedly needed to “save the planet” and not expect to be sued when agencies do not prioritize the treaty’s objectives in every policy, action, or decision dealing with energy production, consumption, and infrastructure.

President Trump apparently recognized from the get-go that there is no stable or principled compromise between his energy dominance agenda and the Paris deep de-carbonization agenda. Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris treaty minimizes the risks it poses to U.S. economic and energy development.