Existing plans for Heathrow airport to be expanded with a new third runway have been ruled unlawful by the Court of Appeal, in the latest move in a battle stretching back the best part of two decades.
On 27 February the court ruled that in June 2018 Chris Grayling, then the transport secretary, was acting unlawfully by not taking into account the government's commitment - under the Paris agreements - to tackle the climate crisis. The Government said it would not appeal, though Heathrow airport itself will.
Air travel is extremely emissions-intensive, releasing a much higher quantity of greenhouse gasses per individual or unit of goods moved than other major public transport or freight methods.
In December 2003 a governmental white paper, "The Future of Air Transport”, advocated a third runway at Heathrow and an expansion of Stansted.
Since then, environmental campaigners have been fighting these proposals, given the harmful impact they would have on the planet; with local residents opposing community destruction and noise and air pollution.
The resurgent environmental movement in 2006-11 increased the opposition, with the 2007 Climate Camp targeting Heathrow.
Solidarity supporters, through Workers' Climate Action, were involved in this climate movement and opposing a third runway, while also supporting strikes of BA cabin crew based at Heathrow.
Nonetheless, in January 2009 the Labour government announced aims for a third runway on economic grounds. The tireless campaigning continued, and the plan was later scrapped by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government in 2010. Or so it seemed.
While recognising and committing, “no ifs, no buts”, to honour the opposition to the third runway, the coalition government established an Airports Commission to consider London's supposed airport capacity problems. In 2015 this commission recommended a third runway at Heathrow.
In October 2016, Theresa May's government approved the third runway plan, against opposition even from some of her own MPs. Further opposition by activists and in the courts has followed.
In June 2018, despite an upsurge of anti-expansion activism, the government got Parliamentary support for its plans by 415 votes to 119. Shamefully, while Labour's Corbyn leadership stated opposition to expansion, Labour MPs were given a free vote and many voted supported the government.
Challenges to expansion were dismissed by the high court in May 2019. However, on 27 February this year, a court of appeal delivered the more favourable verdict.
Boris Johnson has himself previously opposed Heathrow's third runway. Despite being a fair-weather climate sceptic, his opportunist political stances have sometimes fallen in our favour.
The Conservatives' 2019 election manifesto stated that:
“Parliament has voted in principle to support a third runway at Heathrow, but it is a private sector project. It is for Heathrow to demonstrate that it can meet its air quality and noise obligations, that the project can be financed and built and that the business case is realistic. The scheme will receive no new public money.”
The court's verdict is the first major ruling in the world based on the Paris climate agreement, and may inspire similar attempts in the UK and beyond.
Ultimately, the decision has not and will not be settled primarily in the courts. The political obstacles so far are down to widespread campaigning, winning large numbers of people to opposition, and so placing government and parliament under pressure.
The government may now abandon the runway, or draw up a new policy document to attempt to approve expansion. On the latter course of action, they may attempt to square the circle, or it may be possible to reconcile expansion with the comparatively weak Paris agreements. It is down to environmentalists and the labour movement to pressure them to abandon it.
Unite and GMB, two of the three biggest UK unions, two unions which represent many Heathrow workers, and two unions which have a lot of sway within the Labour Party, have consistently backed a third runway.
Continuing their attempt to square the circle, Unite's press office said following the latest court verdict that Unite are “urging the government to take immediate action to ensure that the planned construction of a third runway at Heathrow goes ahead, while ensuring the environment is fully protected.”
GMB National Officer Nadine Houghton is likewise “disappointed” in the verdict on the basis of jobs. She attempts to reassure us that “[l]ike everyone else, GMB members are very worried about climate change, but we would have held Heathrow Airport Ltd’s feet to the fire on their target for zero carbon by the mid-2030s.”
Members of these unions, and activists across the labour movement, must fight for serious environmental policies. A socialist Green New Deal would create many more good new jobs than a third runway; in any case, our movement cannot continue to take the conservative option of accepting the bosses' immediate plans for job creation when doing so drives climate change and with it net harm to our class.
We must counterpose to this: no third runway, an end to airport expansion, and policies to reduce flights.
We must also boldly champion worker-led transition of the transport industry. Jobs guarantees and retraining where necessary: expanding low cost, high quality, integrated, democratically run public transport, especially trains.