I imagine it never feels possible until it’s done.
It’s not often that environmentalists get to celebrate outside a courtroom. Usually we are there to have our hopes dashed against a legal framework that favours the status quo, or to defend activists being charged for peaceful protest.
But after hours of waiting on a cold, rainy morning in February 2020, Friends of the Earth climate change campaigner Aaron Kiely got breaking news from inside the court, picked up his megaphone, and set off a wave of collective joy among gathered climate activists with two small words: “We’ve won!”
Friends of the Earth, Plan B and their lawyers had successfully blocked a third runway, and they’d done it in a case about the climate crisis, arguing that the government had a duty to take the commitments of the Paris Agreement into account, and that not doing so was a breach of the Planning Act 2008. The judge ruled that this situation was “legally fatal” to expansion plans.
Katie de Kauwe, Friends of the Earth lawyer, told me: “This ruling is an absolutely ground-breaking result for climate justice. We were fighting a project that would have had dire implications for present and future generations.
“The court has specifically recognised how the climate crisis needs to be at the heart of major infrastructure decisions. It’s time that the government catches up with this fact and stops pursuing its outdated climate-wrecking transport projects – such as major new roads and airport expansion at Heathrow or elsewhere – and instead gives us the clean transport network we need.”
For the climate and the local environment, a third runway at Heathrow would have been a disaster, resulting in over 700 extra flights a day. In a time of climate emergency and an air pollution crisis, the project had become a flashpoint of environmental activism over recent years.
Friends of the Earth first took their case to the High Court in March 2019, only for it to be rejected three months later – ironically on the day that parliament declared a climate emergency. Determined and convinced of the strength of their argument, the NGO’s lawyers appealed the case in October 2019, leading to the final decision this February.
“When we were waiting outside the court for the result, everyone was on tenterhooks because we knew that this was such an important case and we just didn’t know which way it was going to go,” de Kauwe said. “When the result was announced, it was absolutely incredible!”
This victory comes on the back of decades of campaigning from climate activists and from local residents whose lives would have been blighted by noise and air pollution – or whose homes would have been flattened altogether.
Perhaps most notoriously, in 2015 activists from campaign group Plane Stupid took peaceful direct action against the proposed expansion following the Airport Commission’s recommendation to expand, by breaking onto the northern runway and grounding 25 flights. Found guilty of aggravated trespass, the Heathrow 13 narrowly avoided jail time.
Danni Paffard, one of the activists, told me: “The decision last week left me numb and then tearful, and then overjoyed. It seems sometimes common sense can prevail, even in these crazy times.”
I asked her whether blocking Heathrow expansion actually felt possible five years ago. “I imagine it never feels possible until it’s done,” she admitted. “Taking action against Heathrow certainly felt like that. You don’t do it because you know or think you’ll win, but because you can’t afford not to try.”
This huge win follows two other victories against aviation expansion, with local residents and climate-friendly councillors blocking expansion plans in Bristol and Stansted.
The relentless logic of endless growth and expansion might have felt impossible to surmount even 12 months ago. Today it feels possible to hope that the tide is turning, not least because the ramifications of this victory are further cause for celebration.
Many campaigners and lawyers think that the legal precedent set in this ruling kicks open the door to other legal challenges to environmentally destructive projects that have not shown due regard for the commitments set out in the Paris Agreement and for the UK’s net-zero target.
Already the naturalist Chris Packham has fronted a legal challenge against the rail project HS2, which threatens to trample through over 100 ancient woodlands, while a case against Britain’s biggest road-building scheme since the 1990s is being mounted by Transport Action Network.
The most ambitious challenge comes from George Monbiot, Ecotricity’s Dale Vince and the Good Law Project, who are seeking to upend the government’s entire energy policy.
Monbiot told me: “The Heathrow ruling is crucial. It sets a precedent that can now be followed in the other sectors most responsible for climate breakdown, particularly energy infrastructure and road transport. These are governed by the same framework that was successfully challenged on airport expansion. We are confident we can get the same result.”
National policy statements on energy have not been updated since 2011, and therefore do not take account of the UK’s new legal commitment to becoming net-zero by 2050. If successful, this case could block new fossil-fuel energy projects in the UK – a break from business as usual perhaps even more profound than the cancellation of a proposed runway.
The government has already announced that it has no plans to appeal the Court of Appeal’s decision, although Heathrow’s developers intend to.
Time will tell if they can overturn this landmark victory, or if this ruling sets off a chain reaction of legal challenges that changes everything. For now, Heathrow’s third runway is dead, and new life has been breathed into the UK climate movement.
Russell Warfield is a freelance journalist. This article was first published in Resurgence & Ecologist magazine.