Another runway at Heathrow – and what about carbon emissions we ask?

The Government has come out in favour of expanding capacity at Heathrow. Not surprising really as most political parties, business and tourist interests are all supportive. Expanding capacity for one of the major contributors to carbon emissions and therefore to human induced climate disaster seems pretty stupid. It makes a mockery of the idea of a sustainable society and all that car use replaced by walking and cycling would not offset the extra emissions from aviation!

Below is an analysis from the Business Green Editors blog.

Is there a better microcosm of the British political class’ dysfunctional relationship with climate change than its two decade long flirtation with Heathrow expansion?

It’s all there. The well-meaning intentions, the clumsy attempts to balance competing interests, the vague awareness that environmental constraints need honouring, the selective blindness to existential risks, the optimistic assumptions, and the logical leaps that take Ministers to the brink of a realisation only to then prompt another decade of inaction. Watching Chris Grayling tell the Commons that the third runway will definitely adhere to air quality and climate obligations is like waiting for a Southern Rail train: an unedifying bare knuckle, pub car park fight between hope and experience in which there is only ever going to be one winner.

Most of all though there is the cloying, self-serving omerta that means what should be the biggest issue relating to airport expansion is barely discussed. As Caroline Lucas was quick to observe, Grayling’s initial parliamentary statement on the government’s backing for the third runway contained not one word on climate change. Not. One. Word.

Meanwhile, business groups and unions who have fully acknowledged the scale of the climate threat and have cheered the government on as it has embraced clean tech policies in other parts of the economy are suddenly at the vanguard of those championing the creation of the UK’s most carbon intensive infrastructure project in a generation.

Moreover, the idea that aviation emissions can stay flat even as demand for aviation keeps rising sharply is based on a series of assumptions that allies would call heroic and opponents would call credulous. A third runway might just prove compatible with UK carbon targets, but only if the aviation industry delivers rapid and sustained improvements in fuel efficiency, the use of much cleaner fuels, and significantly higher carbon taxes.

As a 2016 report from the Campaign for Better Transport makes clear these assumptions have significant implications, including soaring ticket prices as carbon levies attempt to constrain demand and the effective end to any expansion dreams harboured by regional airports.

Had the government properly engaged with the climate issue today’s announcement would have been accompanied with some, or preferably all, of the following: a Norway-style target to make all domestic flights electric by 2040; a multi-billion pound green fuel R&D fund to make the UK a world leader in low carbon aviation; a commitment to bring the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars forward from 2040 to 2035, or even 2030; a ban on aircraft having their main engines on while taxiing at any UK airport; a roadmap for increasing aviation carbon levies and a consultation on a frequent flier tax; honest confirmation expansion at Heathrow means no expansion elsewhere; the immediate revival of rail electrification plans; a proposal for a national carbon offset scheme to restore upland habitats; and a promise that new policies will be announced by the autumn to put the rest of the economy back on track to meet its carbon targets.

Would such a green aviation strategy make Heathrow expansion compatible with the UK’s climate targets? Probably not.


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