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United Kingdom

Friends of the Earth and Others v. Secretary of State for Transport

Jurisdiction: United Kingdom

Principle law(s): Climate Change Act

Side A: Plan B Earth (Ngo)

Side B: Secretary of Transport (Government)

Core objectives: Whether an approval to expand Heathrow International Airport is illegal due to inadequate consideration of climate change commitments under the Paris Agreement and advice to change national climate targets

Friends of the Earth and Plan B Earth, a British nonprofit with the mission to realize the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change, filed suit against the Secretary of State for Transport Chris Grayling ("the Secretary") alleging inadequate consideration of climate change impacts in regards to the expansion of Heathrow International Airport. (Additional claimants participated in the suit, but these two groups took lead on the climate-related claims.) Claimants argued that the Secretary's national policy statement supporting the expansion of Heathrow Airport violated the Planning Act 2008 ("the 2008 Act") and the Human Rights Act 1998. The case went before the High Court of Justice Queen's Bench Division Administrative Court which refused all six climate change-related claims filed by the two environmental organisations. 

Environmental Claimants argued that since the 2008 Act requires the Secretary to pursue the objective of sustainable development and consider the desirability of mitigating and adapting to climate change, it further gives rise to implicit obligations to consider the advice of the Committee on Climate Change ("the CCC"), the government's obligations under the Paris Agreement and commitment to review its national climate change targets in light of the Paris Agreement. Claimants maintained that the Secretary violated these implicit obligations by supporting the airport expansion without adequate consideration of the insufficiency of the current UK 2050 climate target ("2050 Target"), the UK's commitments under the Paris Agreement, the CCC's recommendations to review the 2050 Target, and government's recent agreement to review the 2050 Target. Accordingly, they asserted the Secretary's actions were both ultra vires and irrational. Plaintiffs additionally alleged violations of the Human Rights Act 1998. Claimants sought declaratory relief, specifically a declaration that the Secretary of State acted unlawfully in violation of section 5 of the 2008 Act. 

The court did not find that the Secretary had any obligations to consider the Paris Agreement climate targets, the science underlying those climate targets, or a more stringent potential future climate target necessary for meeting the Paris Agreement. The court was not persuaded by arguments that the 2008 Act's climate action goals could be interpreted to make obligations under the Human Rights Act of 1998 inclusive of the Paris Agreement goals. The court found that the Secretary had fulfilled his obligations to consider existing domestic climate targets and acted within his discretion. 

The Court of Appeal has granted plaintiffs the permission to appeal the lower court decision. The judge wrote that the "[i]mportance of the issues raised in these and the related proceedings is obvious." At the appeal hearing, which took place on October 21, 2019, Friends of the Earth reiterated their arguments that 1) the government was in breach of the sustainable development duty under section 10(3) of the Planning Act for not considering the Paris Agreement, the non-CO2 impacts and the long term impacts of the Airport National Policy Statement beyond 2050, and 2) the SoS acted unlawfully by omitting reference to international environmental protection objectives in the Appraisal of Sustainability as required by sch.2 of SEA regulations.

On February 27, 2020 the Court of Appeal reversed the lower court. The court concluded that the Government had made a commitment to the Paris Agreement goals a part of "Government policy" by the time the ANPS was prepared. The Secretary, as a result, needed to expressly consider and address the Paris Agreement goals during the ANPS process (but did not need to act in accordance with the Paris Agreement or reach any particular outcome). The court held that by failing to consider the Paris Agreement the Secretary violated the Planning Act and the requirement to undertake a strategic environmental assessment pursuant to EC Council Directive 2001/42/EC. The court therefore concluded that the ANPS is invalid and must be redone. The court further ruled that in completing a new ANPS, the Secretary should consider the non-carbon dioxide climate impacts of aviation and the effects of emissions beyond 2050, both of which had been omitted from the original analysis. The court did not find it necessary to quash the ANPS, but rather determined that the appropriate form of relief was a declaration that the decision to approve a new runway was unlawful and the ANPS may not have legal effect unless and until the Secretary undertakes a review of it in accordance with the Planning Act.

On May 6, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal. The UK Supreme Court overturned an appellate court decision, allowing the approval process for a third runway at Heathrow International Airport to move forward, on the grounds that the government sufficiently took into account climate impacts with regard to previous, less stringent, climate goals. The appellate court previously ruled that the government acted unlawfully by approving the expansion without considering the country's commitment to meeting the Paris Agreement goals.
Case documents

Related laws and policies
  • GBR flag This law implements United Kingdom legislation
    Climate Change Act

    Passed in 2008 Legislative

    The Act provides a long-term framework to improve carbon management, to help the transition to a low carbon economy, encourage investment in low carbon goods and provide an international signal. The Act establishes a legally binding target for the UK to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net z...

from the Grantham Research Institute
from the Grantham Research Institute
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