Expansion Rebellion follows the lengthy legal battle over the proposed third runway at Heathrow airport and the dizzying back-and-forth between approval, appeals, judicial reviews and victories claimed on both sides. Pivotal to all of this are the people fighting expansion, and in this book we meet some of them: in the community gathering in Vauxhall, south London, where a ‘die-in’ is staged in protest at plans for a new runway; and as we wander around the Middlesex village of Harmondsworth with one of the residents, looking at the houses that will be flattened should the third runway ever be built, and meeting the people whose lives will be blighted by a new runway built at the end of their gardens. The third runway saga has already affected the lives of so many: those who have been issued with compulsory purchase orders, those who have sold up and left their homes because of the uncertainty of whether the development will ever go ahead, those under the approach paths across south-east England whose lives will get a whole lot noisier and more polluted if the proposed 700 extra flights per day take place, and those in the wider UK and global community who will suffer – and indeed are already suffering – the effects of rising carbon emissions.

The Heathrow story has at times been dramatic: in early 2020, at a time when we learned the name Greta Thunberg, when thousands of schoolchildren joined Youth Strike for Climate, when Extinction Rebellion entered the mainstream, and when the IPCC Twelve Years report was little more than a year old, it looked as though the third runway might not go ahead. The world was waking up to the dangers of climate change and the need for urgent action. The question on many lips was whether the courts could be relied upon to understand why it was so important for the UK to embrace the implications of the Paris Agreement and the race to net zero. But later that same year came the crushing disappointment of the supreme court overturning the court of appeal judgment – which had in turn overturned a previous judicial review. Heathrow expansion is, for now, back on the table. 

The author then introduces us to the lawyers who are trying to get the Paris Agreement legally recognised in court, a key factor in why the airport should not be expanded. Tim Crosland, a former government lawyer who resigned to launch his own practice, Plan B, is a major player, along with Craig Bennett, former CEO of Friends of the Earth. 

The carbon budget for the whole of UK aviation is the equivalent of 23,000 tonnes of CO2 a year by 2050. The Department for Transport’s own projections suggest that if Heathrow’s third runway goes ahead, the UK aviation sector will be emitting 40,000 tonnes of CO2 a year by 2050. For years climate campaigners have argued that airport expansion has no place in a climate emergency, and for years, those in the aviation industry have argued that expansion is crucial for growth and employment, and for the UK’s standing in international society. So the long and ongoing story of Heathrow airport expansion takes yet another tortuous turn.

Expansion Rebellion shines an important light on the link between aviation and climate breakdown and exposes the inconsistencies in industry and government policy. The author asks, why is aviation not counted in our emissions reduction targets? Why is the economic reality of expanding the airport ignored? Aviation has been given carte blanche to pollute while other sectors are working hard to decarbonise. The Climate Change Committee, an independent advisory body to the UK government, has said we must have no net expansion of the UK’s airport sector, but plans for a third runway at Heathrow make a mockery of that statement. Of course, this is about more than just Heathrow. It’s about airport expansion across the UK, and it’s also about following the UK’s legally binding climate targets when looking at planning for any high-carbon infrastructure project. It’s about making sure the UK government doesn’t hide our climate targets behind a smokescreen of technology and offsetting. 

Heathrow Airport Holdings, which operates the airport, has never actually submitted a planning application for the third runway. If it does eventually decide to apply for a development consent order to build the north-west runway and it is approved, we can expect lawyers to dust off their wigs and to fight those plans all the way. 

Anna Hughes is the director of Flight Free UK.