UK government criticised by prominent scientists and lawyers, for ignoring Paris climate goals in infrastructure decisions
Prominent scientists and lawyers (including Jim Hansen, Sir David King and Prof Jeffrey Sachs) have written to ministers and the Supreme Court, to say the UK government’s decision to ignore the Paris climate agreement when deciding on major infrastructure projects undermines its presidency of UN climate talks this year. The Heathrow case is a key example, when a 3rd runway was approved in principle by government (2019) and the Supreme Court finally ruled in December 2020 that the government had not needed to take the Paris climate goals into account. The UK is due to host the Cop26 summit in Glasgow in November, regarded as one of the last chances to put the world on track to meet the Paris goals. It is dangerous for the highest court in the land to set a bad precedent. The letter, signed by over 130 scientists, legal and environmental experts, says that the Supreme Court “set a precedent that major national projects can proceed even where they are inconsistent with maintaining the temperature limit on which our collective survival depends.” And “Indeed, the precedent goes further still. It says that the government is not bound even to consider the goals of an agreement that is near universally agreed.”
The letter in full is at
UK criticised for ignoring Paris climate goals in infrastructure decisions
Exclusive: scientists write to ministers and supreme court over recent ruling in Heathrow case
By Fiona Harvey Environment correspondent (The Guardian)
Tue 30 Mar 2021
Prominent scientists and lawyers have said the UK government’s decision to ignore the Paris climate agreement when deciding on major infrastructure projects undermines its presidency of UN climate talks this year.
The experts – including the former Nasa scientist Jim Hansen, the former UK government chief scientist Sir David King and the economist Prof Jeffrey Sachs – have written to ministers and the supreme court about a recent ruling that the government need not take the UK’s obligations under the treaty into account when setting policy, made in a case concerning the proposed expansion of Heathrow airport.
Green campaigners took the government to court in 2019 over its decision to allow the expansion of Heathrow, arguing that the increase in air travel it would enable was incompatible with the UK’s obligations under the Paris agreement to try to hold global heating to well below 2C above pre-industrial levels.
“The highest court in the UK has set a precedent that major national projects can proceed even where they are inconsistent with maintaining the temperature limit on which our collective survival depends,” says the letter, signed by more than 130 scientists, legal and environmental experts.
“Indeed, the precedent goes further still. It says that the government is not bound even to consider the goals of an agreement that is near universally agreed. Not only does that undermine the UK’s status as a champion of the Paris agreement just ahead of Cop26. It also substantially reduces humanity’s prospects of maintaining that limit and hence averting disaster.”
The letter urges the government and the supreme court to rethink. “We remind the court of its own obligations under the Human Rights Act 1998 to safeguard the right to life. That entails taking all reasonable measures to ensure respect for the entirety of the Paris agreement.”
Tim Crosland, the director of Plan B, the campaigning group that brought the original case, has been the subject of contempt of court proceedings as he revealed the supreme court judgment early, and the letter also refers to his case.
“With all that is at stake in the UK and beyond, we urge the court to take appropriate steps to mitigate the profound harm its judgment has caused and to consider the actions of Tim Crosland in this light,” it states.
King told the Guardian he was particularly concerned about the treatment of Crosland and its implications for protest and dissent, amplified by the police and crime bill now passing through parliament that could in effect outlaw most forms of public demonstration.
“It’s extremely worrying, as we pride ourselves in Britain on having developed a true democracy,” he said. “Any democracy needs to give voice to dissent. There’s a real danger that we’re going down a pathway that leads away from democracy.”
Sachs said: “The idea that [government] decisions should be consistent with the Paris agreement is a general principle for the world, and the world is looking to the UK this year for leadership at Cop26. The rather casual way in which the supreme court said the Paris agreement was not a determining factor is very concerning. Courts should be forcing governments to adhere to their commitments under Paris.”
The UK government is stepping up its preparations for Cop26 this week with two ministerial conferences: one on climate and development, bringing together donor governments and countries most vulnerable to climate breakdown to discuss climate finance; and one with the International Energy Agency, pushing countries to devise strong policies to reach net zero emissions.
However, a series of recent government actions have raised concerns among green campaigners and experts. Plans for a new coalmine were given the green light this year, until the controversy forced the communities secretary to order a public inquiry.
This month new licences were issued for oil and gas exploration in the North Sea,
and at the weekend the government scrapped its main green recovery measure, the green homes grant for insulation and low-carbon heating.
Meanwhile, the UK’s decision to reduce overseas aid spending has also raised concerns. Achim Steiner, the UN’s development chief, said in an interview with the Guardian: “It sends a very mixed signal, and makes developing countries very concerned. It certainly does not enhance the confidence with which developing countries come to the table.”
A group of green campaigners wrote to the government urging a reversal. Amanda Khozi Mukwashi, the chief executive of Christian Aid, said: “In the year of Cop26, as host and significant emitter, all eyes are on the UK to lead the world in stepping up ambition on climate action.”
The letter text:
See https://planb.earth/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Supreme-Court-Expert-Letter.pdf for footnotes and list of signatories
President of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom
London SW1P 3BD
Rt Hon Alok Sharma MP, President COP26
Rt Hon Michael Ellis QC MP, Attorney General
Mr. Tim Crosland, Director, Plan B.Earth
Re. Humanity’s Lifeline: the Paris Agreement Temperature Limit
March 30, 2021
Dear Lord Reed:
We write concerning the Supreme Court’s decision last December, which ruled that the
Government’s policy in support of Heathrow expansion was lawful, despite the Government’s
failure to take into account the Paris Agreement’s agreed temperature limits which constitute a key part of its architecture.
There was uncontested evidence before the Court that:
● The expansion of Heathrow Airport would lead to around 40,000,000 tonnes of carbon
dioxide emissions from UK aviation by 2050;
● That in order to meet the Paris Temperature Limit (ie 1.5˚C and “well below” 2˚C), carbon
dioxide emissions would need to be “net zero” before 2050; and that
● Breaching the Temperature Limits prescribed in the goals of the Paris Agreement would
have dire implications for humanity, in particular for the younger generation and the
The Government did not explain how the expansion of Heathrow Airport could be reconciled
with the goals agreed in Paris by every country in the world. To the contrary, it argued that the
Paris Agreement was “not relevant”. Chris Grayling MP, the Transport Minister at the time,
relied instead on the historic 2˚C temperature limit, rejected by governments (including the UK Government) in December 2015. The Court of Appeal ruled that approach unlawful, on the basis that it was the Government’s own policy to uphold the Paris Agreement – including its globally agreed temperature limits which are based on impeccable science:
“It is clear … that it was the Government’s expressly stated policy that it was
committed to adhering to the Paris Agreement to limit the rise in global
temperature to well below 2ºC and to pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5ºC.”
Reversing the Court of Appeal’s decision, the Supreme Court held that the Paris goals could not be regarded as Government policy (despite the fact that the Government itself had accepted the Court of Appeal’s ruling).
Consequently, the Court held that there was no requirement on the Government to take the Paris goals set out in Article 2 into account.
We urge you to consider the grave implications of this judgment. The highest court in the United Kingdom has set a precedent that major national projects can proceed, even where they are inconsistent with maintaining the temperature limit on which our collective survival depends. Indeed, the precedent goes further still. It says that the Government is not bound even to consider the goals of an Agreement that is near universally agreed. Not only does that undermine the UK’s status as a “champion of the Paris Agreement,” just ahead of the critical climate talks in Glasgow later this year (COP26). It also substantially reduces humanity’s prospects of maintaining that limit and hence, averting disaster.
The rule of law, including international law, is a vital part of the fabric of a democratic society
and it is key to securing the safety of our interconnected world. We understand why Tim
Crosland of Plan B. Earth felt it necessary to raise the alarm about the goals of the Paris
Agreement being ignored by British courts. We remind the Court of its own obligations under the Human Rights Act 1998 to safeguard the right to life. That entails taking all reasonable
measures to ensure respect for the entirety of the Paris Agreement.
The climate crisis jeopardizes civilization and the natural world alike, with those who have
contributed least to the crisis, the younger generation and the Global South, on the frontline.
With all that is at stake, in the UK and beyond, we urge the Court to take appropriate steps to
mitigate the profound harm its judgment has caused and to consider the actions of Tim Crosland in this light.
Letter to DfT: The Airports National Policy Statement should now be withdrawn, as it is out of date
The Supreme Court ruled, on December 16th, that the Airports National Policy Statement (NPS) was legal. The ANPS is the policy document necessary to Heathrow to proceed with plans for a 3rd runway. But the Court ruling does NOT give the runway consent. The government did not challenge the earlier ruling, in February, by the Appeal Court. The ANPS was written around 2017-18 and approved in Parliament in June 2018. Since then, life has moved on, and it is very out of date. The economics of the situation have changed; awareness of the climate implications of a runway is hugely greater; the Committee on Climate Change has given its advice on the Sixth Carbon Budget, and that aviation growth has to be constrained; knowledge has increased about the health impacts of air pollution from aircraft; and now Covid has reduced demand for air travel, which may never recover to its 2019 level. Neil Spurrier, from the Teddington Action Group (TAG) has written to the DfT to ask that the ANPS is now withdrawn. He says the ANPS “is now completely out of date and should be withdrawn. I request that this is done pursuant to a review under section 6 of the Planning Act 2008 …” See Neil’s full letter.
What does the Supreme Court judgement on Heathrow’s runway plans mean for the campaign to stop the 3rd runway?
A briefing note from the No 3rd Runway Coalition on what comes next, after the Supreme Court judgement (16th December) sets out some key issues. The Coalition says the judgement does NOT give Heathrow the green light; it us simply one hurdle cleared. Expansion faces: 1. Legal challenges. Plan B Earth intends to take proceedings to the European Court of Human Rights, on the danger to future generations from climate change. 2. Government can commit to reviewing the ANPS under Section 6 of the Planning Act 2008. This can refer to all or part of the statement. The Act enables the Secretary of State to consider any significant change in any circumstances on the basis of which any policy in the statement was decided. It can be argued that the Net Zero commitments, noise, air pollution, assessment of health impacts, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the economics provide legitimate reasons for review. The ANPS could be withdrawn. 3. The DCO process. Though Heathrow can now proceed to submit an application for a Development Consent Order (DCO) to the Planning Inspectorate, this has to consider current climate obligations, including the UK’s net zero by 2050 target. And Heathrow has been seriously damaged financially by Covid. See the full briefing note.
Supreme Court rules that the Airports NPS is legal; climate issues of a Heathrow runway would have to be decided at the DCO stage
The Supreme Court has ruled that the Airports NPS is lawful. In February 2020 the Appeal Court had ruled that it was not, on climate grounds. The ANPS is the national policy framework which governs the construction of a Heathrow 3rd runway. Any future application for development consent to build this runway will be considered against the policy framework in the ANPS. The ANPS does not grant development consent in its own right. The Supreme Court rejected the legal challenges by Friends of the Earth, and Plan B Earth, that the then Secretary of State, Chris Grayling, had not taken climate properly into account, nor the UK’s commitments under the Paris Agreement. These are tricky points of law, and definition of the term “government policy” rather than the reality of climate policy. Heathrow is now able to continue with plans to apply for a Development Consent Order (DCO) which is the planning stage of the runway scheme.The Supreme Court said at the DCO stage, Heathrow would have to show “that the development would be compatible with the up-to-date requirements under the Paris Agreement and the CCA 2008 measures as revised to take account of those requirements” and“The Court further holds that future applications [for the runway] will be assessed against the emissions targets and environmental policies in force at that later date rather than those set out in the ANPS.”