The U.K.’s Busiest Airport Can’t Build a New Runway Because of Climate Change

For the first time, the Paris Agreement was cited as the reason to halt the expansion of a project.
February 27, 2020, 5:17pm
File photo dated 07/02/20 of a British Airways 747 plane taking off at Heathrow Airport. Steve Parsons/PA Wire URN:50302995 (Press Association via AP Images)​

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Heathrow Airport in London was about to become the world’s busiest airport. But now it won’t, because of climate change concerns.

For the first time, the Paris Agreement, the world’s first comprehensive international climate change pact, was cited as the reason to halt the expansion of a project. Plans were underway to build a third runway at Heathrow, which would’ve allowed about 700 more flights to pass through the airport every year — and would have emitted huge amounts of climate-heating greenhouse gases.

But the British courts on Thursday blocked the expansion and ruled the proposal didn’t adequately take climate change concerns into account.

“For the first time, a court has confirmed that the Paris Agreement temperature goal has a binding effect,” Margaretha Wewerinke-Singh, an international public law expert at Leiden University, in the Netherlands, told the Guardian.

The U.K. has pledged to zero out its carbon emissions by 2050. But the judges didn’t rule that any new runway would violate the country’s commitments made under the Paris Agreement; they ruled that the proposal simply ignored the country’s climate goals.

Climate activists and prominent U.K. politicians alike had argued the project was incompatible with the spirit of the Paris Agreement and celebrated the ruling as a win.

“We won!” London Mayor Sadiq Khan tweeted. “Today’s judgment is a major victory for all Londoners who are passionate about tackling the climate emergency and cleaning up our air.”

Now, the decision on the project moving forward lies with the British government, which has said it won’t contest the ruling. The airport will appeal the decision, but Prime Minister Boris Johnson won’t back the appeal.

Johnson hasn’t exactly been a champion of the climate crisis. His statements have been all over the place: He claimed in 2013 the melting of the Arctic was causing the North Atlantic to be chilled “like a martini refrigerated by ice cubes.” But he’s also vowed to confront the crisis head-on and recently said, “The evidence is overwhelming, and this phenomenon of global warming is taking its toll on the most vulnerable populations around the planet.”

The prime minister did, however, vow to “lie down in front of those bulldozers” to stop the construction. So did climate activists with Extinction Rebellion.

About 1,300 flights already take off and land from Heathrow every day, and 80 million people fly through the airport every year. Had the new runway been built, 110 million people were expected to pass through Heathrow annually by 2030, which would’ve made it the world’s busiest airport by 2030. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Georgia holds the title now, with 107 million passengers flying through every year.

Climate-heating emissions from air travel are ballooning. Flights currently contribute 2.5% of global carbon emissions, and they’re rising more than 1.5 times as quickly as they were expected to.

Cover: File photo dated 07/02/20 of a British Airways 747 plane taking off at Heathrow Airport. Steve Parsons/PA Wire URN:50302995 (Press Association via AP Images)