Heathrow: local opposition as strong as ever


Heathrow is in the news again. The coalition Government dropped plans for a 3rd runway two days after it came to power in 2010. That followed a massive campaign against the Labour Government’s plans for Heathrow expansion: The coalition also ruled out new runways at Gatwick and Stansted.


However, the aviation industry, together with its many friends in business, regrouped. Last September David Cameron gave in to the pressure and set up the Airports Commission, under Howard Davies, to look again at whether new airport capacity was needed, especially in London and the South East. Its particular remit was to assess whether the UK would have enough capacity over the coming decades to improve its connectivity with the emerging economies of the BRIC countries.


Davies is due to publish with an Interim Report at the end of this year where he is expected to come up with a shortlist of options he will look at in more detail in his final report to be published in Summer 2015, two months after the next General Election.


Although noise is a big issue, particularly at Heathrow, where, according to the EU, at least 725,000 people live under the flight paths (28% of all those disturbed by aircraft noise across Europe), climate change will be the factor which will ultimately restrict the growth in aviation. And yet in the myriad of proposals for new runways and gleaming new airports being put forward, it hardly features. I suspect this is partly because it is the inconvenient truth that would sound the death-knell of many of the proposals. But it is also because the aviation industry has now adopted a reassuring position: don’t worry, we understand the problem and are dealing with it through new technology and the EU Emissions Trading Scheme.


Greener technology is of course welcome and there are people within the industry who are making genuine efforts to mitigate aviation’s climate impact. But, though new technology can, and often does, surprise us, the climate science suggests that, in itself, it will not be sufficient.


The EU Emissions Trading Scheme, currently suspended for flights into and out of Europe for one year because of objections from America, China and India, remains an untested vehicle for significantly reducing emissions.


Aviation, of course, needs to be looked at in the context of what is happening on the wider climate front. The Copenhagen talks – and subsequent summits – have concentrated on measures that would limit the rise in world temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius, which, until recently, was thought to be achievable and sufficient to prevent runaway climate change (although this may be seen as a leap of faith). However, recent evidence suggests that temperatures are heading for a 4 or 6 degree rise. That would have a potentially catastrophic impact on the climate. To prevent profound disruption to the future global climate would require much tougher measures than world leaders have been looking at.

As far as aviation in the UK is concerned, the recommendations of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), the Government’s official advisers, are based on stopping a 2 degree rise in temperatures and allowing the Government to reach its target of cutting overall CO2 emissions by 80% by 2050.

The CCC argues that the number of flights could increase by around 55% and still enable that target to be met. However, this 55% figure is problematic. Not only because the science now indicates the world is heading for a rise in 4 or 6 degrees but also because the 55% figure makes huge assumptions about the cuts that will be made in others sectors of the economy by 2050. It would require the power supply to be fully decarbonised, virtually every home in the country to be so well insulated that it lost almost no heat, carbon capture and storage to be in place and huge reductions in emissions from shipping and waste to take place.


The CCC target for UK air travel is past its sell-by date. Its assumptions about the cuts in carbon that other industries are likely to make look naively optimistic; its assumptions about the rate at which the world is warming up now look unrealistic and complacent. Yet, the Airport Commission is expected to be guided by the CCC target.


The climate science suggests that government aviation policy should be aiming at stabilising, if not cutting, the amount of flying we do, rather than providing for anticipated growth. This can be done through the introduction of measures which dampen down demand: an end to tax-free fuel for aviation; a higher and more realistic rate of Air Passenger Duty to compensate for the zero-rate status the industry enjoys on VAT; tax-breaks for video-technology; investment in affordable rail. Some of this would need to be done at an international level but fiscal measures can change behaviour.


And this behavioral change needs to start now. Professor Kevin Anderson puts it well in this lecture. He shows that, while distant targets may be all well and good, the critical factor in determining the rise in global temperatures is the amount of CO2 we will emit over the next decades. Postponing action till dates conveniently far into the future is no longer an effective option. He argues that, to control future climate disruption, the lifestyles of people in the rich world need to become much less carbon intensive, starting today. The onus is on us to change so as to allow some growth in the poorer countries.


If the planet had a vote, it would be saying a firm ‘no’ to gleaming new airports.


About the Author - John Stewart is the chair of Campaign against Climate Change. He has been an environmental campaigner for over 30 years. He was centrally involved in the campaigns against road building in the 1980s and 1990s. He chaired the local campaign group and played a key role in bringing together the most wide-ranging coalition of organisations and individuals ever assembled in the UK to oppose a new runway. He is a past chair of the Campaign for Better Transport.  He currently chairs AirportWatch and the UK Noise Association.


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