Battle to halt Heathrow expansion will win, says Labour

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell says picture changed by net-zero emissions target

(Image credit: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

The campaign to stop a third runway at Heathrow is on the verge of victory, Labour’s shadow chancellor has claimed, amid growing opposition to the environmental impact and cost of the multibillion-pound expansion.

John McDonnell, a long-standing opponent of a third runway, said the picture had changed since a legal challenge failed in the spring, as the UK had legislated for a net-zero emissions target by 2050 and declared a climate emergency.

“I think legislatively things have moved and politically, with the current campaigning by Extinction Rebellion, the pressure is on all politicians to recognise this is a project that cannot stand,” he said.

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In May, the High Court dismissed four separate cases brought by local authorities, residents, the mayor of London, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, ruling that the government had not breached its sustainable development duties by approving the plan to build a third runway.

However, campaigners have taken the Government to the Court of Appeal, arguing that the Heathrow expansion plans are “incompatible” with its own legally binding emission goals.

Climate groups argue that the net-zero target cannot be reconciled with an expanding aviation sector, because there are only very limited options for reducing the greenhouse gas emissions of aircraft.

Commercial aviation accounts for about 2% of global carbon dioxide emissions, says the Financial Times, “but several studies have shown that the warming impact of the sector is actually greater because most of the emissions are at high altitude”.

Last month the Committee on Climate Change, the government’s official advisory body, said aviation was likely to be the biggest-emitting sector of the economy by 2050 and suggested that curbing demand for flying was one way to reduce aviation emissions.

To achieve its goals, The Independent says the UK “needs to limit the growth in demand for flights to no more than 25% above current levels by 2050, according to the CCC, yet Heathrow expansion plans could see the number of passengers using the airport rise to 132 million, an increase of 60%”.

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Heathrow is operating near capacity, with almost 480,000 flights in 2018. Plans to expand the airport were first mooted 30 years ago and finally approved by a massive parliamentary majority last year.

Argument in court

David Wolfe QC, for Friends of the Earth, told the Court of Appeal that Chris Grayling, who was transport secretary at the time, had not taken the 2015 Paris agreement into account when approving the airport expansion.

John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace UK, said the government continues to be making the right noises about the climate emergency but is still not doing the right thing.

“Heathrow’s third runway is the poster child for this huge disconnect between official rhetoric and action,” he said. “An enormous expansion of carbon emissions and pollution at the exact moment they agreed to do the opposite is unacceptable. The government needs to curb emissions now by tackling the growth in aviation.”

As well as net zero targets and its impact on local environment, The Guardian reports that “for the first time, judges will hear arguments that the expansion of Heathrow airport violates the rights of children and future generations, who will bear the greatest impact of the climate crisis”.

World Wide Fund for Nature was given permission to submit papers alleging a breach of the UN convention on the rights of the child.

Government lawyers will argue that a third runway can be built without breaching the country’s climate commitment, but with Extinction Rebellion protests catapulting climate change to the top of the political agenda, there is growing pessimism a third runway will ever be built.

Cost is also a concern: the projected £14bn budget could balloon to as much as £30bn over the next 30 years, The Times reports. One long-term critic of the cost of expansion, Willie Walsh, the chief executive of British Airways parent company International Airlines Group, said this week: “I think it is a bigger challenge today than it was a year ago. And I can’t see it getting any easier.”

The hearing is expected to last until next Thursday, with a verdict due in December.

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