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Campaigners challenge Heathrow NPS in the High Court

Words: Laura Edgar
Heathrow third runway visualisation

Friends of the Earth has launched a legal challenge against the government’s decision to approve a third runway at Heathrow Airport, claiming it is unlawful because it fails to address the UK’s climate change obligations.

Friends of the Earth’s lawyers Leigh Day filed papers with the High Court on 6 August 2018 asking for the Airports NPS published in June to be quashed.

The campaign group is seeking to challenge the legal basis of the government’s decision to designate the Airports National Policy Statement (NPS), claiming that the NPS fails to account for all the impacts on future generations, “who will be left with the adverse consequences of growth from aviation-increasing climate impacts”.

In June, MPs voted 415 to 119 to approve the expansion of the Heathrow Airport with a third runway, the government’s preferred scheme for increasing airport capacity in the South East.

Friends of the Earth considers the Airports NPS amounts to a breach of the UK’s climate change policy and its sustainable development duties. The challenge has been brought because the campaign group thinks the NPS does not explain how it takes account of domestic targets for greenhouse gas emission reduction under the Climate Change Act 2008.


  • It does not factor in the Paris Agreement, which aims to limit global warming to well below 2°C and pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5°C.
  • It fails to factor in the non-CO2 climate impacts of a third runway, such as the emission of nitrogen oxides, which generate warming effects of a similar magnitude to CO2 emissions.
  • It does not lawfully and fully consider the likely impact of a third runway on future generations, who will be stranded with the climate-damaging infrastructure.

Liz Hutchins, director of campaigns at Friends of the Earth, said: “The government’s airports strategy completely ignores its obligations to tackle climate change – this is short-sighted, incredibly reckless and we believe it is unlawful.

“Allowing the aviation industry to pump more pollution into the atmosphere will make it far harder to prevent catastrophic climate change – and leaves future generations to suffer the consequences.

“It’s time to end our reliance on the fossil fuels that are already roasting our planet and threatening people’s lives, homes and livelihoods.”

Rowan Smith, a member of the public law team at Leigh Day, said: “In no sensible terms can this be described as sustainable development, when the additional costs of carbon-offsetting and the global warming potential of non-CO2 emissions from aviation do not feature in the government’s plans.

“The government has a legal duty to take into account climate change policy and the Paris agreement it has committed to with the global community. The Airports National Policy Statement does not adequately consider those factors and we therefore will argue that it is unlawful.”

A decision on whether there will be a full hearing about these issues is expected to be made in the autumn.

Read more:

MPs vote to expand Heathrow

Cabinet approves third runway plan for Heathrow

Revised draft national policy statement for third Heathrow runway published

Report: Government not doing enough to mitigate impact of Heathrow expansion

Draft national policy statement for Heathrow expansion published

Mixed views from the industry as government backs Heathrow expansion

Government backs Heathrow expansion

Scottish Government backs Heathrow expansion

Northern airports offer mixed reactions to claim that Powerhouse will struggle without Heathrow expansion 

Northern Powerhouse will ‘struggle’ without Heathrow expansion

Image credit | Heathrow Airport