On 26 June 2018, the UK Secretary of State for Transport adopted the Airports National Policy Statement (ANPS), which governs the construction of a third runway at Heathrow Airport. This led to challenges from several environmental campaigners, including Friends of the Earth Ltd and Plan B Earth. Among other grounds, it was argued that the Secretary of State had disregarded the UK Government’s commitments under the Paris Agreement (ratified on 17 November 2016 by the UK) when designating the ANPS.
In 2019 the Divisional Court dismissed all of the objectors’ claims in two separate judgments. However, in 2020 the Court of Appeal allowed part of Friends of the Earth’s and Plan B Earth’s grounds, and held that the ANPS was unlawful (see judgment here). The Secretary of State did not appeal the Court of Appeal’s decision. However, Heathrow Airport Ltd, owner of Heathrow Airport, sought and was granted permission to appeal to the Supreme Court (UKSC). Heathrow Airport stated that it had already invested a large sum of money in promoting the third runway. On 16 December 2020, the Supreme Court unanimously decided to allow Heathrow Airport’s appeal on all grounds, ruling that the ANPS was lawful. However, the judgment states clearly that the climate must be considered at the planning permission stage of the third runway.
Human rights claims:
Under Section 3 of the Human Rights Act 1998, Friends of the Earth et al. argued against interpreting section 5(8) of the Planning Act 2008 in a way that excluded consideration of the Paris Agreement temperature limit. This would result in the development of large-scale national projects posing an unacceptable risk to people’s lives and homes, in breach of Articles 2 and 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
The Supreme Court found that this reasoning must fail for two reasons. First, this argument had already been raised as a separate ground before the Divisional Court, where it was rejected. This decision was not appealed to the Court of Appeal, and was therefore not considered subject to the UKSC proceedings. Secondly, even if this argument were within the scope of the appeal, it would not have succeeded because any effect of the third runway on the lives and families of those affected by the consequences of climate change would result not from the designation of the ANPS but from granting permission to develop the construction project. As Heathrow Airport Ltd. had conceded, and the respondents agreed, the ANPS requires the third runway to be evaluated against the emissions targets in place if and when an application to develop the runway were to be made (para 113 of the UKSC judgment).
Shortly after the Supreme Court’s decision, Plan B Earth announced in a press release that it intends to take the judgment to the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that reliance upon the 2 degrees Celsius target is a violation of the right to life (see here). Additionally, Plan B Earth served a pre-action letter on the UK Government alleging that its failure to develop a plan to address climate change is a violation of human rights as well as domestic and international law (see here).
Date of decision:
16 December 2020
Suggested case citation:
UK Supreme Court, R (on the application of Friends of the Earth Ltd and others) v. Heathrow Airport Ltd, UKSC 2020/0042, Judgment of 16 December 2020,  UKSC 52
For the full judgment, click here.
To watch a webcast of the hearing, click here.
Joanne Hawkins, ‘A lesson in un-creativity: (R (on the application of Friends of the Earth Ltd and others) v Heathrow Airport Ltd  UKSC 52’, 23(4) Environmental Law Review (2021), 344-349. Available here.