Guest post by Tilak Doshi,
To the well-heeled tourist visiting London, the UK Court of Appeal’s decision last week to stop the expansion of Heathrow airport will mean more hassle flying into an already “overcrowded and expensive” airport or having to fly to Luton or Gatwick instead. But is the Court’s decision – the first legal ruling in the world to explicitly cite the Paris Agreement as the basis to reject a government-approved development plan – likely to worry Asian government planners?
On the face of it, the answer is clearly “no”. The Paris climate change agreement does not bind any nation beyond voluntary “intended nationally-determined contributions” and good-faith efforts to “increasing” such INDCs in future rounds of negotiations. In the mainstream media, the Paris agreement was widely hailed as the “first truly global climate deal”, committing both rich and poor countries to controlling rising emissions blamed for global warming. Yet the level of commitment determined by each country is an open question, to say the least.
Each submission by the current 189 signatories to the agreement is at the discretion of the individual country with no objective standards that it must meet; the “contributions” themselves are not binding as a matter of international law and there are no agreed and independently-audited systems of measurement, reporting and verification (“MRV”). Commentators have called the accord a process of “name and shame” but one doubts whether such a process can be a strong motivator of sovereign state behaviour in many cases.
China, the world’s largest emitter by far, has committed to reaching peak emissions “around 2030” but offered no commitment regarding the level of that peak or the subsequent rate of emission decline. Early models of China’s “business-as-usual” (BAU) trajectories by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory had already concluded that emissions would peak around then anyway. Bloomberg New Energy Finance found Chinese commitments with respect to emissions intensity actually less ambitious than BAU. It also observed that India’s submitted INDCs were underperforming a policy of doing nothing at all. India, the world’s third-largest emitter after China and the US, offered no commitment with respect to its expected emissions peak. A domestic think-tank claimed that India’s BAU emission profile did not appreciably differ from its INDC submission.
Yet, the failed Heathrow airport expansion project will be a déjà vu moment for some developing country governments. They have had their share of experiences of large infrastructure projects being blocked by challenges mounted by foreign NGOs and local activists. The plaintiffs against the Heathrow expansion project were, apart from local government bodies (five London councils and the Mayor of London), four other litigants, all environmental NGOs: Plan B Earth, Friends of the Earth, WWF-UK and Greenpeace.
It was not too long ago (2015) that the Indian branch of Greenpeace was banned from receiving foreign donations. The then-new Modi government’s posture was clear: Greenpeace India’s campaigns against India’s infrastructure projects were not to be financed by their foreign sponsors. Since Modi took office in 2014, India has cancelled the registrations of nearly 15,000 non-governmental groups under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act over the same principles. Are environmental advocacy groups spokesmen of an international civil society fighting for a global public commons as they claim? Or are they special interests that influence government policy in an agenda set by foreign funders at the expense of the common man?
Environmental groups (and their lawyers) hailed the Heathrow verdict as a milestone in their efforts against the development of huge infrastructure projects. The Green child-prophet Greta Thunberg tweeted “Heathrow third runway ruled illegal over climate change. Imagine when we all start taking the Paris Agreement into account…” The Heathrow ruling opens the door to potential challenges against expanding other airports or building roads, gas-fired power stations and coalmines on the grounds that they too run afoul of the Paris climate change “commitments”. As one commentator put it: “This decision will surely open up a whole new Pandora’s box and allow the likes of Greenpeace to legally challenge any and every project they don’t like in future.”
The Obama Administration submitted INDCs for the Paris Agreement which were to be achieved through regulations enacted by executive orders rather than by enabling legislation in Congress. It was clear that the consent of the Senate for ratifying the Paris Agreement would not have been forthcoming. It did not take long for in-coming President Trump to pull the US out of the international accord in which he saw no credible commitments by the likes of China and India. Furthermore, he retracted the remaining US$2 billion contribution pledged by the previous administration to the Green Climate Fund, the UN’s moribund climate finance initiative. At a stroke, President Trump nixed the idea that the Paris Agreement was to lead to a massive global redistribution of funds from the developed to the developing countries. This, it should be noted, was an explicit pre-condition of the vast majority of the developing countries for signing on to the Paris Agreement in the first place.
The legal setback for the Heathrow expansion plan is merely one of the many infrastructure and energy projects that have been delayed or blocked by any number of environmental NGOs in the developed countries, from Canada to Australia and from the US to Europe. But the explicit reference to the Paris Agreement by the three judges in UK’s Court of Appeal does raise an ominous new threat of a “weaponized” Paris Agreement, an addition to the arsenal of blocking tactics available to activist international NGOs.
It was not too long ago that Arvind Subramaniam — previously chief economic advisor to the Indian government — stated that India cannot allow the West’s narrative of “carbon imperialism” to negate rational planning for the vast infrastructure requirements of the developing countries. For the hundreds of millions of citizens that have newly emerged from poverty in recent decades and are beginning to enjoy the fruits of economic growth and technological progress across Asia, Africa and Latin America – among the greatest achievements in human history – it is to be hoped that the Heathrow decision is irrelevant to their futures.
Let China and India proceed with their plans to build hundreds of new airports over the next several years. Meanwhile, the US$2.2 billion Navi Mumbai International Airport is slated to handle 20 million passengers annually when it opens its first phase in 2023. And Singapore’s Changi Airport inaugurated its iconic 10-story “Jewel” concourse last year, offering visitors an indoor forest and waterfall and more than 280 stores and restaurants, hoping to make the Singapore airport a destination in itself. While London’s greenies cheer over stopping the expansion of Heathrow, Mumbai and Singapore are open for business. Let Greta take the train!