Heathrow’s third runway and other UK aviation infrastructure again under threat, this time obliquely from the environmental lobby

Just when Heathrow Airport thought it had fought off the final challenge to its implementation of a third runway by way of the recent rejection of claims made under a judicial review, another potential impediment has arisen literally out of nothing. A senior civil servant in the Department for Transport (DfT) has told a ‘green’ pressure group, Plan B, that ministers may have to review aviation strategy (again) as the UK’s planned increase in aviation would need to be curbed to restrict CO2 emissions.


  • UK Transport Department official suggests ministers may have to review aviation strategy in the light of recent moves further to restrict CO2 emissions;
  • The Airport Commission’s support for the third runway at Heathrow seems lost in history as alternative scenarios play out;
  • The government – ironically – desperately needs a ‘populist policy’ as elections loom. A big question remains…will Heathrow’s third runway ever be built?

You would think that CO2 emissions had just been discovered. The rigmarole to investigate and confirm the need for a third runway began in 2012 with the Airports Commission, which supplied its final report in Jul-2015. It was mulled over at length by a Parliament which was not prepared to commit to the Commission’s findings without dotting every ‘i’ and crossing every t’ while senior political figures continued to press for Gatwick instead. Parliament then demanded, and got, additional environmental scrutiny over and above the Commission’s findings, before eventually signing off the Heathrow’s expansion last year, focusing particularly on emissions around Heathrow as much as in it. But that was far from the end of the matter.

Then came the judicial review, which was completed in Apr-2019, in which five separate legal challenges were dismissed on the grounds that the government’s national policy statement, which supports Heathrow’s expansion, was legal.

Friends of the Earth immediately said it would appeal against the ruling because the decision is “outdated in an ecological and climate emergency”. While that is only to be expected from Friends of the Earth, who, like the aliens in Galaxy Quest, “never give up, never surrender”, the terminology it uses here suggests what has happened.

Firstly, London (mainly), Edinburgh and other UK cities were brought to a standstill a couple of weeks ago by protesters from the pressure group Extinction Rebellion. Despite the massive disruption the protests caused they appeared to win public sympathy, partly because they showcased young people as spokespersons and partly because they were treated as a cause célèbre by much of the tele-visual media, which in the UK is obsessed with ‘climate change’.

Almost immediately after came a United Nations statement to the effect that one million plant and animal species are in danger of extinction, again widely reported in the media. While not directly linked to emissions (rather more to deforestation and the use of fertilisers and crop-spraying chemicals) it played straight into the hands of the environmental lobby.

Then there is the unpalatable fact that the British government needs public-concern “issues” right now to attract support. Dragging up this issue, and indirectly through a civil servant – and even if that was not its intention – satisfies that purpose very well.

What the civil servant said also reflects the view of the advisory Committee on Climate Change (CCC), which stated recently the UK’s planned increase in aviation would need to be curbed to restrict CO2. That means ministers may have to review aviation strategy not only for London but for the entire UK.

The work-in-progress Strategy Review through to 2050 was supposed to help redress the economic balance between South and North once the Heathrow Third Runway was done and dusted by revisiting airport infrastructure needs in the regions. The latest development suggests regional economic imbalance will have to take a back seat to the need to restrict CO2.

The CCC says climate concern is so high the decision on Heathrow expansion should be brought back to Parliament. When the government first laid out proposals for increasing aviation, the UK had an overall target of cutting CO2 emissions by 80% by 2050. But the CCC recently raised the bar of ambition in recommending that Britain should adopt a target of net zero emissions.

For how long could Heathrow expansion be brought back, one wonders? For another couple of years? Until the government changes again (which could be any time between next week and 2021)? The DfT actually continues to defend the proposed Heathrow expansion, saying it would “provide a massive economic boost to businesses and communities” across the UK, all at “no cost to the taxpayer and within our environmental obligations”. But, the CCC insists this is not an option in a ‘zero-carbon’ Britain.

Sometimes you do wonder if the Heathrow runway will ever be built, and if it is, what it would look like. As for regional airports they would be best advised to spend what they can while they can.

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