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Heathrow, net zero and the grounding of Britain


MANY will regard yesterday’s Court of Appeal decision to block a third runway at Heathrow as an unwelcome intrusion of judges into our democratic system. They will be bemused that those judges cited the Paris Agreement to justify their decision when one can hardly see China*, or indeed any other signatory to the Paris Agreement, blocking vital airport expansion because of that same treaty. 

But to blame the judges is to miss the point. All they have done is to take the commitments of that accord and the Government’s pledge to achieve net zero emissions at face value. It is a simple matter of fact that such expansion cannot be reconciled with reducing our emissions, at least in the short term. This is what net zero means. It means abandoning the pursuit of growth, of new opportunities, of new trading links, and consigning the country to eco-austerity. Yesterday’s decision brings that reality, and the government’s shameful failure to be upfront about its implications, into sharp focus. 

When the Paris Agreement was signed in 2016 it was hailed as an extraordinary moment in the fight against climate change. Green journalists parroted this view, useful as it was to politicians and activists desperate to show that progress had been made. Those familiar with the details could see that all it really did was to confirm countries’ existing plans. China, India and other developing countries were allowed to continue increasing their emissions, and the EU reaffirmed its own emissions targets. America’s inclusion was more significant, but it wasn’t long until Trump announced his intention to withdraw.

The result is to leave Britain uniquely vulnerable to the economic consequences of rapid decarbonisation policies. While the more cautious approach of Eastern European countries will act as a brake for the EU, Britain is faced with a fundamental political choice as it leaves. It can choose to embrace the free market and technological progress, which will lead to the more efficient use of resources and indeed reduce the consumption of almost every natural resource. Or it can continue with an opportunity-destroying, unilateral approach of state-mandated decarbonisation. Time to choose.

*China is planning to build 216 more airports by 2035.

This article first appeared on the Global Warming Policy Forum on February 27, 2020, and is republished by kind permission.

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Harry Wilkinson
Harry Wilkinson
Harry Wilkinson is Researcher to the Global Warming Policy Forum

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