November 7th, 2017
For seasoned environmental campaigner Tony Lowes, his colleagues at Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE) and climate activists across Ireland 21 November 2017 will be remembered as a historic day for the climate movement.
The Cork-based group’s tireless campaigning against the construction of a new runway in Dublin airport didn’t stop the project, but led to an unexpected victory: the recognition of a constitutional right to an environment “consistent with dignity and well-being of citizens”.
It all started last summer when Transport Minister Shane Ross expressed his dissatisfaction with Dublin airport’s lengthy delays for passengers and suggested the construction of a new runway as the best solution for the problem – a project that has been in limbo since the mid-2000s due to the economic downturn.
Initial Residents Concern
Residents of Swords were the first group to oppose the project. The residents argued that a new runway – 1.6km closer to their houses than the current one – would increase aviation noise pollution.
St Margaret Concerned Residents Group became the next opposing voice of the €320 million runway, raising concern with Dublin Airport Authority (DAA) and Fingal County Council’s waste management plan for the project.
An additional 22 individual residents brought the next action against the proposed construction, arguing that the development was illegal since Fingal County Council refused to address their concerns over the effects of the construction on their homes and lands.
Ryanair weighted in on the side of Dublin Aviation Authority and Fingal County Council, with Michael O’Leary declaring earlier this year that the long-awaited runway was “imperative”.
Cases brought by the St Margaret’s group and the 22 residents were dismissed by the court, although the judge, Mr Justice Max Barrett, “sympathised” with the residents. It was Judge Barrett’s comments in the FIE case, however, that raised the attention of the environmental community both home and abroad.
Landmark Climate Challenge
FIE brought their action against Fingal County Council on the grounds that the runway plans violated various EU directives such as the Habitats Directive as well as the 2000 Planning and Development Act. The group also argued that the proposed runway would lead to increased greenhouse gas emissions, which would elevate the rate of climate change.
In 2007, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) announced that aviation accounted for 2 per cent of global greenhouse emissions caused by human activities and would rank in seventh place globally after Germany for emissions if counted as a country.
Although Judge Barrett rejected FIE’s challenge, he appreciated the group’s climate concern and, in a historic move, recognised the constitutional right to an environment “consistent with dignity and well-being of citizens”. In his judgement, Mr Justice Barrett said that such a right “is an essential condition for the fulfilment of all human rights”.
“It is an indispensable existential right that is enjoyed universally, yet which is vested personally as a right that presents and can be seen always to have presented, and to enjoy protection, under Art. 40.3.1 of the Constitution. It is not so utopian a right that it can never be enforced,” the judgement continued.
While disappointed with the court’s ultimate decision, Fred Logue, the solicitor for the FIE in the case, said that he is “very happy” with the recognition of the constitutional rights to the environment.
Speaking to The Green News, he said that he is hopeful that Judge Barrett’s recognition will enhance the consideration of environmental matters when reviewing future cases in the areas of manufacturing, transport, agriculture, energy, and marine.
“Climate change is a serious threat to our way of life, and that needs to be taken to account in Ireland and elsewhere,” Mr Logue added. “We have to balance development with environmental effects that’s very important and what we said was that balance hadn’t been considered in this case.”
Tony Lowes, the director of FIE, added that, while he believes the new runway needs accurate ecological assessment, he appreciates the Irish legal system allowing groups and individuals to bring such cases before the courts.
Mr Lowes is hopeful that the landmark recognition will bring about a new “age of enlightenment” and lead to an increased awareness of environmental issues in Ireland. “The power of individuals to develop fundamental rights shows something uniquely democratic in our system. He warned, however, that there is still a lot of work to do to tackle the environmental impact of aviation transport.
For example, he said, it is “bizarre” that there is still no tax placed on aviation fuel despite the impact on the environment. EU regulation and various mutual agreements between the EU and other countries ensure that international flights are currently free from fuel taxes.
“It is one of those things that the society is going to have to deal with,” Mr Lowes warned. “The problems are so great that we no longer have any choice.”