After months on standby due to a lower court’s ruling, Grimshaw Architects’ controversial expansion plans for London’s Heathrow International Airport were authorized by the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom earlier this month.
The nation’s highest court reversed a decision made by the British Court of Appeal in February of this year, which agreed with climate activists that the planned project would violate the United Kingdom’s commitments to the 2015 Paris Climate Accord. Since signing the international agreement to keep global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celcius, the British government has set its eyes on achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.
Grimshaw’s plans for Heathrow include the addition of a third runway and a glass-ceiling terminal building, both of which would allow the airport to increase its capacity to 140 million annual passengers by 2050. The multi-national architecture firm promotes its $18.8 billion proposal as both affordable and environmentally friendly, though further details on the sustainable elements of its design have yet to be released.
Environmentalists across Britain, with vocal support from Mayor Sadiq Khan of London, lauded the February ruling as a significant victory for the fight against climate change and a potential precedent for future legal challenges to major infrastructure projects. A panel of five justices from the Supreme Court, however, unanimously concluded that the government had adequately considered the climate treaty in its planning phases and that international agreements should have no binding effect on the implementation of domestic policy.
The British environmental organization Plan B, which initiated the legal proceedings against the airport project, minced no words in response to the December ruling: “Absurdly, the Supreme Court claimed that [former Secretary of State for Transport Chris] Grayling had taken the Paris Agreement into account, even though the Minister himself had stated that it was ‘not relevant’ and that he had not taken into account.”
With the outsize environmental impact of air travel facing increased scrutiny in recent years, climate activists and designers alike have pushed architects to avoid large-scale projects that contribute significantly to the worsening climate emergency. Such critiques have occasionally fomented tension within the profession, prompting Foster and Partners and Zaha Hadid Architects to pull out of the Architects Declare network due to disagreements arising from airport and office park design.
The decision to approve plans to increase capacity at one of the world’s busiest airports, of course, comes at an awkward time. With COVID-19 still wreaking havoc on international tourism, and with several nations closing their borders to U.K. travelers as health experts assess a new, highly contagious variant of the coronavirus found in London this month, it is unclear when demand for air travel will return to pre-pandemic levels. According to the BBC, November passenger traffic at Heathrow fell 88 percent from the previous year, prompting the closure of Terminal 4 until the end of 2021.
As for the climate activists who insist that an airport expansion of such scale will accelerate environmental degradation, the fight is ongoing. Plan B has promised to “take the judgement to the European Court of Rights,” and will likely launch new legal challenges as development progresses.