Friends of the Earth claims decision to build a third runway at Heathrow is unlawful as it fails to take into account the UK's climate change obligations
The government is facing yet another legal challenge over its decision to greenlight construction of a third runway at Heathrow Airport, with Friends of the Earth the latest campaign group to claim the decision flies in the face of the UK's climate change obligations.
The environmental charity yesterday revealed it has filed legal papers with the High Court calling for the Airports National Policy Statement (NPS) - which controversially gave the go-ahead for expansion of the airport in on 5 June - to be quashed.
Lawyers Leigh Day, acting on behalf of Friends of the Earth, claim the NPS is unlawful as it amounts to a breach of the UK's climate change policy as well as its sustainable development duties.
The charity believes Transport Secretary Chris Grayling's decision to back Heathrow expansion "fails to account for all the impacts on future generations, who will be left with the adverse consequences of growth from aviation-increasing climate impacts".
It came as another campaign group, Plan B, also launched legal action this week against the Department for Transport's (DfT) decision to back Heathrow expansion, on the basis that it breaches legal obligations in the UK's Planning Act to alleviate the impacts of climate change.
Separately, Greenpeace, London Mayor Sadiq Khan, and a host of local councils have also promised to launch a judicial review of the decision.
In legal papers filed on Monday, Friends of the Earth claims the NPS does not take into account legally-binding emissions targets set out in the UK's Climate Change Act, nor the goals of the Paris Agreement which aims to limit global warming to 'well-below' 2C and pursue efforts to limit temperature increases to 1.5C.
Moreover, the green group argues DfT's decision to back Heathrow expansion fails to factor in the non-CO2 climate impacts of a third runway, such as emissions of nitrogen oxides that it says generate warming effects of a similar magnitude to carbon dioxide. The NPS also fails to fully consider the likely impact on future generations of locking in "climate-damaging infrastructure", the charity adds.
Friends of the Earth's director of campaigns Liz Hutchins slammed the government's "unlawful" decision to back Heathrow expansion as "short-sighted" and "incredibly reckless".
"Allowing the aviation industry to pump more pollution into the atmosphere will make it far harder to prevent catastrophic climate change - and leaves future generations to suffer the consequences," she said. "It's time to end our reliance on the fossil fuels that are already roasting our planet and threatening peoples' lives, homes and livelihoods."
A decision on whether to grant Friends of the Earth's legal claim a full hearing is expected to be made in the autumn, according to the charity.
In response, a DfT spokesperson said the government was "confident in the decision-making process which led to designation of the Airports National Policy Statement, and stand ready to defend it robustly against legal challenge".
A Heathrow Airport spokesperson also said it supported the government's statement. "Judicial reviews are a completely normal process in infrastructure projects of this size and our work on our planning application continues, to ensure the timeline for the delivery of an expanded Heathrow is not affected," it added in a statement.
The government has repeatedly argued that expansion is compatible with both carbon emission and air quality targets, stressing that full planning permission is contingent on environmental standards being adhered to. Heathrow is working on a raft of measures designed to tackle air pollution at the site and step up investment in green aviation technologies and carbon offset schemes.
However, the government's claims and the NPS on which they are largely based have attracted widespread criticism from green campaigners. Critics have pointed out that the Airport Commission's conclusions are based on the UK's aviation sector being subject to a carbon price of at least £300 per tonne and "significant" biofuel use.
The Airports Commission also pointed out that the only alternative to such measures would be the use of a carbon trading scheme to offset emissions elsewhere - but the CCC has pushed back against such proposals, arguing emissions cuts should be based on domestic action rather than budgetary "flexibilities". Environmental campaigners have insisted the assumptions the government has used to claim that expansion is compatible with green goals are wildly optimistic and as such the plans for the third runway should be shelved.
It now looks as if multiple courts will be asked to referee the long running debate over whether airport expansion really is compatible with the UK's climate and air quality targets.
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