UK Court Blocks Heathrow Airport Expansion on Environmental Grounds

FILE-- British Airways planes line up to use the runway around Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport in London, July 12, 2017. British Airways canceled most flights scheduled for Monday and Tuesday after its pilots went on strike over their demand for higher pay, upending the travel plans of about 195,000 passengers. (Andrew Testa/The New York Times)

Mark Landler

c.2020 The New York Times Company


LONDON — Environmental opponents of a plan to build a third runway at Heathrow Airport won a potentially decisive victory Thursday after the Court of Appeal ruled that the project was unlawful because it violated Britain’s commitments to climate change.

The decision was a major victory for environmental groups and was one of the first legal rulings to invoke climate-related issues as grounds to strike down a major infrastructure project. The court said the runway could put Britain at odds with the commitments it made under the 2016 Paris climate accord to reduce carbon emissions.

On Thursday, Heathrow said it planned to appeal the court’s decision, and its chief executive, John Holland-Kaye, said, “Let’s be clear, no Heathrow expansion, no global Britain.”

Transportation Secretary Grant Shapps said on Twitter that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government would not appeal the judgment, “given our manifesto makes clear any #Heathrow expansion will be industry led.” But it was not immediately clear what that would mean for the long-debated runway.

At a minimum, the court ruling will delay construction indefinitely, prolonging a battle over the runway that has raged for years. The $18 billion project would enable about 700 more planes a day to use Heathrow, but it would drive up the airport’s carbon dioxide emissions.

Johnson, whose parliamentary constituency encompasses towns and villages that are near the airport, which is about 14 miles west of Central London, has stridently opposed the expansion plan in the past.

In 2015, while he was mayor of London, he promised constituents, “I will lie down with you in front of those bulldozers and stop the construction of that third runway.”

About 80 million passengers a year travel through Heathrow, one of the world’s busiest airports, and the traffic is already straining its capacity.

Proponents of the third runway argue that it is necessary to compete with other large European airports, including Charles de Gaulle in Paris, Schiphol in Amsterdam and Frankfurt in Germany.

The decision is the latest twist in a battle that has vexed both of Britain’s main political parties. The Labour Party government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown first gave the project a greenlight in 2009. His Conservative successor, David Cameron, reversed course, holding up the project. The Conservative government of Prime Minister Theresa May resurrected the plan in 2015.

The ruling is a big victory for Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London and a member of the opposition Labour Party, who campaigned against the runway.

“Today’s judgment is a major victory for all Londoners who are passionate about tackling the climate emergency and cleaning up our air,” Khan said on Twitter.