February 27, 2020 / 3:59 PM / a month ago

Breakingviews - Heathrow ruling reflates sagging UK green stature

A British Airways passenger plane prepares to land at the new Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport in London March 28, 2008.

LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - Britain’s green credentials have received a timely shot in the arm. The UK courts’ nixing of plans for a third runway at London’s Heathrow airport affirms the importance of carbon dioxide emissions in major investment decisions. It has also taken a tricky decision off Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plate, and patched up his credibility as ringmaster at a critical climate summit in November.

The villain of Thursday’s ruling from England’s Court of Appeal was Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May, who signed off on the expansion of Europe’s busiest airport in 2018. Her administration, the judges said, ignored Britain’s legal obligations to cut carbon emissions agreed in Paris in 2015. Johnson could in theory now resubmit the plans, with Paris commitments duly factored in, and proceed with the 14 billion pound project. There are three reasons why he shouldn’t.

The first is November’s COP26 climate summit in Glasgow. Britain’s status as the first major economy to commit to net zero carbon emissions by 2050 makes it an appropriate spearhead for a gathering that will be globally critical for setting adequate carbon reduction targets. But Johnson’s decision to entrust the coordination of that process to business secretary Alok Sharma – hardly a big hitter – struck a discordant tone. Another Heathrow runway would have rendered UK demands for others to become greener rather hollow.

The second is the country’s legislated commitment to hit net zero carbon dioxide emissions by the middle of the century. To get there, its own Committee on Climate Change says air travel can only grow by 25% – roughly 41 million passengers – from now. Heathrow’s expansion plans alone would have added 52 million, more than half the 97 million passengers that Britain’s airports collectively want to add by 2050, according to a tally from analyst Carbon Brief.

Which leads to the third point – Johnson’s pledge to “level up” Britain by investing more in impoverished northern regions, and less in the prosperous southeast. Growing Manchester and Birmingham airports would keep the UK on its carbon track, and deliver some of the 77,000 jobs expected from the Heathrow development to needier parts of the country. Ideally, of course, Johnson would have arrived at these conclusions himself. But it’s still better than not doing so at all.


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