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28 February 2020

The Heathrow ruling has aided Boris Johnson – but the courts can’t be relied on to tackle climate change

At some point, the government will have to show ambition and bravery in introducing measures to meet its legal obligations.

By Stephen Bush

If Heathrow’s third runway is to go ahead, ministers will have to explain to parliament how building it can be reconciled with the government’s legal obligations under the Paris climate agreement, the High Court has ruled.

What does it mean? Well, in theory, not a great deal. The government can press on with Heathrow without even bothering to appeal the verdict at the Supreme Court – almost any form of words in a policy statement about how, having taken the Paris accord into account, the third runway is fine and dandy will do. Rather like the government’s commitments on air quality, in fact.

As with its plans to spend £28bn on new roads, which may face a similar challenge, the government can get away with an awful lot simply by employing some aspirational language about the advent of electric vehicles and a waffley commitment to innovation. That’s a far easier and quicker way around the problem than appealing the verdict at the Supreme Court.

In practice though, the reason why the government is not appealing the verdict is that letting the third runway project die off due to benign neglect gets the Prime Minister out of a hole. His own constituents in Uxbridge and South Ruislip oppose the scheme and it is very, very hard to see how the third runway can be reconciled with the UK’s climate commitments.

At this point, pro-Heathrow commentators like to point out that the UK accounts for “only” 1 per cent of global emissions. This is true, but we also account for “only” 0.87 per cent of the population – we are punching above our weight in terms of our contribution to the problem, and in any case, global emissions as a whole need to go down. What is true is that the main British contribution to tackling climate change will be about what we contribute to what happens outside the UK – through the Dfid budget, through diplomacy and also through demonstrating how democracies can decarbonise while the government remains in office.

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Is the Prime Minister showing deft leadership in exiting the airport commitment, which he inherited, with minimum political fuss and without the Tory party? Yes. The problem is that not all of the UK’s climate targets can be met with the minimum of political fuss within and without the Tory party

Any attempt to unpick the decades-long shift in UK transport funding in favour of the motorist, be it by ending the Conservatives’ beloved fuel duty freeze or moving to some form of road use pricing, is going to cause serious ructions. So, too, will letting the likes of Flybe go to the wall. But that’s the level of ambition and bravery that is needed. Johnson won’t always be able to rely on the courts to solve his problems for him.