Skip to main content
commonweal
05.03.20

The End of Rhetoric?

Volunteer Researcher Patrick Wiggins discusses the implications of the recent court case which blocked expansion of Heathrow Airport on grounds that it conflicted with climate legislation. Patrick wonders what this will mean for future infrastructure projects in the UK and elsewhere.

In an important judgement last week the Court of Appeal declared that the plans for a new runway at Heathrow were incompatible with the UK’s obligations to limit carbon emissions in line with achieving our Paris Accord commitments. Specifically planning policy did not reflect the Government’s legally binding climate targets and therefore the decision to grant planning approval was unlawful.

A truly landmark case not just for the UK but potentially globally as possibly for the first time legal commitments entered into by a Government at Paris 2016 have been used to overturn climate damaging decisions. Now all major decisions need to seriously address the potential impact on the climate and the UK’s international commitments to limit CO2 emissions.

Three further challenges to UK Government policy are being launched with news that the Common Law project and George Monbiot have written to the Treasury challenging  national policy statements on energy infrastructure, the Transport Action Network is challenging new expenditure on road schemes and Chris Packham with law firm Leigh Day are challenging the decision to proceed with HS2.

All three challenges are on the basis that Government policy statements are out of date and incompatible with climate commitments specifically in the Paris Agreement and subsequently ratified by Parliament.

With the Heathrow decision the UK Government were able to sit on the fence, appearing to support both aviation expansion and the environment, claiming that it was a private sector initiative, so 'nothing to do with us'. There has to be more than a suspicion that the Government’s distancing from the project had more to do with Johnson's opposition to the expansion which was based on it being in the wrong place rather than serious concern by its impact on CO2 emissions.

The Government’s response to the problems facing the aviation industry from the drop in passenger numbers arising from the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak will also be telling (with FlyBe going into administration – possibly the first of several airlines to face major difficulties because of the outbreak). Does the Government give further tax breaks to an industry which is already one of the major contributors to CO2 emissions to bolster ‘Global Britain’ post Brexit? Back in January when FlyBe first signalled its financial problems the environment certainly wasn’t front and centre of the Government’s response rather concerns about regional interconnectivity and competitiveness. The upcoming Budget will signal the Government’s intentions here and will be another test of their commitment to the environment

These latest challenges to Government thinking and policies go right to the core of the Government’s infrastructure programmes, manifesto commitments and environmental credentials. This means that they will need to decide whether the Greenwash rhetoric is just that or they are serious about the climate – in which case these plans will need to be radically rethought.

The well trailed proposals for new infrastructure expenditure likely to be contained in the March budget will have a critical question to answer – will they help or hinder the UK achieve its climate commitments? Talk of ‘levelling up’ and ‘rewarding’ those communities primarily in the North of England for voting Conservative for the first time through infrastructure expenditure will now need to realised within this changed policy context. Unless, of course, the Government seeks to resist these new legal challenges and/or introduce amended or new legislation. Its decision time for the Government - back climate commitments or try and find a way to avoid them (for now at least) and severely damage their climate crisis reputation in the run up to COP26 in Glasgow.

This comes on top of another set of crunch decisions around Brexit. No longer will the rhetoric of getting Brexit done, or the mysterious ‘non border’ in the Irish Sea be sustainable. Increasingly we are reaching the point where rhetoric hits reality because of legal commitments and deadlines.

The thing about Johnson and his modus operandi is that he says things (or even signs things) that he later disavows when the consequences become clear or it doesn't suit his personal position/pursuit of power at a later point in time. Johnson won't like being boxed in by an International Agreement that sets targets so far ahead he probably didn't think that they would apply to him (certainly not in the next couple of electoral cycles). Just like he doesn’t like confronting the realities of the legally binding EU withdrawal agreement. ‘Brexit’s done and we are sorting out the environment’….well no it isn’t and you aren’t and action is becoming more urgent by the day. Dither and delay, as Johnson would say, is no longer an option.

If these challenges are successful then it will be a game changer, as George Monbiot puts it could be ‘the point at which the tanker begins to turn’ on climate action.

So what comes next? Well of course the Government could shift its proposed infrastructure expenditure towards a comprehensive Green New Deal – like the proposals contained in Commonweal’s ‘Our Common Home’ report which outlines how Scotland should respond to the climate crisis, replacing rhetoric with action.

I’m not holding my breath on that one. Whilst undoubtedly new green initiatives will be announced they will not be of the scale and breadth required and will be set in the context of further growth and consumption – both of which are no longer sustainable options.

There needs to be a fundamental policy review at both the UK and Scottish Government to ensure they are up to date and consistent with our climate commitments and obligations.

Critically we need a new way of identifying and assessing major projects. No longer placing GVA and labour productivity at the core of project appraisal for publicly funding infrastructure rather we need to prioritise redistribution of our current wealth (rather than blindly  pursuing growth and consumption), resource productivity (delivering a circular economy) and of course reducing our carbon footprint (territorial and embedded) so that we can play our part in addressing the climate crisis. I’m off to give that one more thought…

Common Weal only exists because people who believe in what we do give us a small, regular donation each month. You can support our work by signing up as a supporter here.