Heathrow’s expansion plans were stalled last month when the court of appeal ruled that ministers did not adequately consider the commitments that the government made to tackle the climate crisis in the Paris Agreement.
The ruling, by three Court of Appeal judges, said the Paris Agreement “ought to have been taken into account” when the government signed off its policy favouring the development in 2018, but was not.
What is the Paris Agreement?
According to the UNFCC the Paris Agreement’s key goal is to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by keeping the global temperature rise this century to below 2 degrees Celsius, above pre-industrial levels, and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
All Parties were required to put forward their best efforts through nationally determined contributions (NDCs) and to strengthen these efforts in the years ahead. This includes requirements that all Parties report regularly on their emissions and on their implementation efforts.
What did the UK commit to?
The UK pledged to reduce its emissions as part of a joint pledge by members of the European Union
EU Member States agreed to a 2030 target of at least a 40% reduction in emissions below 1990 levels, supported by an EU-wide climate and energy package.
Alongside this, last year the UK became the first major economy to commit to bringing all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. This is an 80% reduction from 1990 levels.
Net zero means any emissions would be balanced by schemes to offset an equivalent amount of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, such as planting trees or using technology like carbon capture and storage.
What impact is this likely to have on future projects?
The decision made on Heathrow sets a precedent for future projects within the industry. It’s not to say that Heathrow’s expansion plans aren’t compliant, just that ministers didn’t fully evaluate the impacts before signing off on the project.
As the first major legal ruling in the world based on the Paris Agreement, it is bound to feed heavily into future project plans and designs. The other surprise was related to timing; in June 2018 when the House of Commons debated the Airports NPS recommending Heathrow Expansion, the Paris Agreement was not enshrined in UK law.
A successful appeal based on something that is not yet on the statute book opens up many possibilities for environmental campaigners on other projects. The environmental argument is now an awful lot stronger that it has been in previous years.
Broadcaster Chris Packham has already launched a legal challenge against HS2, arguing that the projects carbon emissions and climate impact have not been considered.
In January, Bristol councillors refused an application for Bristol airport’s expansion plans. If the developer appeals this decision, then their case will now need to take the Paris Agreement far more seriously if they are to have a chance of succeeding.
The Drax gas power plant in Selby, which is hoping to build four new gas turbines, is also under threat from the ruling. The planned expansion would make it the largest gas power plant in Europe. It is currently being challenged by ClientEarth who claim that the project is a significant’ threat to the UK’s carbon targets and could be responsible for as much as 75% of the emissions budget for the entire UK power sector.
Going forward, the Paris Agreement will need to be considered whenever a National Policy Statement is created or reviewed.
Because the case for decarbonisation is now so strong in the UK, there are three key implications that we can expect to see within transport & infrastructure.
1. Environment & Sustainability teams will grow
Major Project Developers and Sponsors will likely bolster their environmental and sustainability teams, as the need to present airtight cases on how to minimise carbon emissions becomes pivotal to a project’s future.
2. Demand for environmental consulting will increase
Likewise, specialists in this field are going to be in high demand and consultancies will likely find that work in this area will boom as schemes become far more centred around being environmentally friendly.
This doesn’t just concern how infrastructure can be developed to minimise emissions once it is operational, but also how the construction can be completed cleanly.
In the short term, we may see consultancy rates increasing for this type of work.
3. New technology will come in to play
Sustainable technology is coming on in leaps and bounds, and the government is investing heavily in initiatives to cut emissions. What will certainly become more prevalent going forward is the implementation of these new technologies into upcoming projects.
An example of this is with rail electrification. The Welsh section of the Great Western Electrification has struggled with the cost of electrifying hard to reach areas like the Severn Tunnel.
At present, the solution is diesel and electric hybrid trains. However, as this still produces a significant amount of carbon emissions, a greener option is to speed up the introduction of battery-operated trains in service for use within tunnels and other expensive to electrify spots.
The Transport and Infrastructure sectors play a huge role in cutting carbon emissions and the UK reaching it’s 2050 targets. The Heathrow decision is a setback for the airport (and many would also say for UK business), but the implications for future projects can help to speed up advances in this area.