Heathrow expansion: a flight of fancy

The real question is whether we should build a new runway—not where

October 26, 2016
©Yui Mok/PA Wire/PA Images
©Yui Mok/PA Wire/PA Images

WWF has nothing against trade or travel. Both are crucial for growing our economies and broadening our horizons. But we do have a problem with aviation. A problem we all share. Climate change.

If environmental issues are raised at all in the airports debate, it tends to be noise and air quality that get the headlines. This is understandable. We generally see climate change as a terrible thing, but somehow remote from us. A problem for other parts of the world and future generations. Noise and air quality have much more tangible impacts on people’s lives today—people who vote for current politicians, in this country.

The media have simply framed the issue as a contest: Heathrow vs Gatwick. But the real question is whether, not where, to build a new runway. And the real answer is that it’s hard to see how a new runway can be compatible with our commitment to preserving a stable climate that supports sustained peace and prosperity.

The Climate Change Act—a wonderful piece of domestic (not EU) legislation—requires an 80 per cent reduction in emissions by 2050. The Government’s expert advisers at the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) say that in order to meet this target, we need to hold annual aviation emissions to 37.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (Mt CO2) in 2050.

According to the Davies Commission’s own numbers, UK aviation emissions are projected to hit about 40 Mt in 2050 even with no new runways at all. A new Heathrow runway will more than double the overshoot, increasing emissions to over 43 Mt. Even these worrying numbers optimistically assume that emissions would be dampened by a 2050 carbon price of almost £200 per tonne (in 2008 money)—if this doesn’t materialise then emissions would be even higher.

Notwithstanding the questionable logic of building a new runway you don’t actually want people to use, the Davies Commission estimated that this already optimistic carbon price would need to at least treble in order to limit emissions to the 37.5 Mt cap. The Campaign for Better Transport reckons this would increase the cost of a four-person return flight for a family holiday in New York by £270 to £850.

Alternatively, the Government could ask for more effort from the rest of the economy, increasing carbon costs for those same businesses who are currently (ironically) clamouring for new runways. The CCC has “limited confidence” in this option.

The Government may be tempted to claim that the UN has solved the problem for them with its Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA). We’ve also been pushing for this measure, so we’re pleased it has finally been agreed, and we encourage more countries to join up. But it’s no carte blanche for airports expansion. Here are three reasons why.

First, the Government, on the CCC’s advice, does not count offsets towards its climate targets. With good reason: as a developed country with high historical emissions, the UK should be cleaning up its own back yard, not paying others to clean up theirs.

Additionally, early experience of offset schemes has been problematic, with several projects either failing to reduce emissions or undermining sustainable development. High quality carbon credits (for example, from biogas projects that turn waste and manure into clean cooking energy) could make an important contribution to offsetting aviation emissions while supporting Sustainable Development Goals, but strong rules are needed to rule out bad credits (such as large hydro projects that can force people off their land and destroy important habitats for wildlife). If these rules prove ineffective, offsetting new runway emissions could cause havoc with people and nature while failing to reduce emissions at all.

Secondly, the goal of the CORSIA, which 191 countries are signed up to, is to plateau (not reduce) aviation emissions at 2020 levels. For developing countries, it is ambitious (indeed several developing countries strenuously oppose it). For the UK however, it is well below the level of ambition established by the Climate Change Act. The CORSIA may contribute to, but is no substitute for, our own domestic ambition.

Thirdly, even if the CORSIA worked perfectly, it does not cover the non-CO2 effects of flying (such as sulphur and nitrogen oxides), which are estimated to at least double the global warming impact of flying. It also does nothing for the quality of life of the families living under the flightpaths who suffer the noise and air pollution.

Our solution is simple. The government should listen to its advisers and “publish a strategic policy framework for UK aviation emissions” as part of (or alongside) the National Policy Statement that will formally put the new runway proposal to Parliament for decision in a year or so.

This framework must clearly explain how the Government will reconcile a new runway with its climate commitments—without passing the buck to other economic sectors or countries.

If it can be done, we stand ready to help. If it can’t, we will continue to stand against new runways.