Why the Commission’s ‘green light’ for a new runway could still turn out to be a ‘red light’
James Lees, from the Aviation Environment Federation, writing in the Huffington Post, says that while recent days have seen the 3 major parties edge towards a potential about-face on the desirability of a new runway for the south east, the underlying reasons for their opposition to it back in 2010 have not changed. In 2010 David Cameron famously promised “no ifs, no buts, no third runway” at Heathrow; Nick Clegg warned a 3rd runway would be a “disaster”, and Ed Miliband threatened to resign from Cabinet over the issue. The reason that politicians came out against a new runway in 2010, reversing a decision in favour of new runways at Heathrow and Stansted, wasn’t for a lack of perceived need but down to the power of local opposition. This came from the impact of aircraft noise, its associated health impacts – and also local air pollution and air quality limits. The Airports Commission has so far only paid lip service to the importance of community opposition, mainly addressing only the issues of demand and capacity. The interim report provided no more than vague reassurances to the affected communities. Without satisfactory reassurances from the Commission, communities will look to politicians to provide these. The Airports Commission has failed for now to achieve its purpose to take the politics out of the airports issue. The Interim Report has just re-opened the political debate.
Why the Green Light for a New Runway Could Still Turn Red
This week, we’ve seen the major parties edge towards a potential about-face on the back of the conclusions of the Airports Commission’s interim report that a new runway is required by 2030. The Commission has shortlisted options at Heathrow and Gatwick (and potentially in the Thames Estuary) for where the new runway should go and intends to spend 2014 analysing them.
However, the reason that politicians came out against a new runway back in 2010, reversing a decision in favour of new runways at Heathrow and Stansted, wasn’t for a lack of perceived need but down to the power of local opposition.
This opposition centres on the disturbance caused by aviation noise to the lives of over a million people in communities close to airports (around 750,000 of whom are near Heathrow). Air pollution, and its associated health impacts, has also stirred up opposition and was partly why a third runway at Heathrow wasn’t built while it enjoyed political support from the last government.
London is already being threatened by the EU over breaches of legal air quality limits and with air pollution at Heathrow already bordering on these thresholds (best visualised in annual maps of air quality in London), the issue is likely to kick up a storm again this time around.
Communities around Gatwick face similar challenges to those around Heathrow.
The Airports Commission has paid lip service to the importance of community opposition in previous failed expansion attempts by saying at the beginning of the report that “decisions on airport capacity (should) balance local considerations with the national interest”.
Yet the Commission hasn’t so far applied this logic to its own work, addressing only the issue of demand and capacity in the report and leaving 2014 for a detailed look at the local situation.
Separating the national picture from local concerns may make sense as an approach for the Airports Commission, as local impacts are obviously dependent on where they are. But in separating the two, and making the conclusion that additional capacity is required – and can be delivered from one of the shortlisted options – local concerns appear to be an afterthought.
Having made his conclusion, would Sir Howard Davies, Chairman of the Commission, be welcome at any airport if he should subsequently decide that the local impacts for each option are too great for a runway to be built? This would definitely be a possibility if the Commission was to apply its own logic as the problems, which prompted such strong words from the coalition back in 2010, have not gone away.
The communities around the shortlisted options, at Heathrow, Gatwick and the Thames Estuary, will have to wait until 2015 to find out which is the favoured option. The next year of uncertainty will coincide with the beginning of the campaign trail in marginal seats in West London and the South East.
The interim report provided no reassurances to the affected communities, only the vague promise of an independent noise body and a optimisitc prediction that the number of people living within a certain noise contour (which is considered as a poor indicator of noise annoyance) will decrease to around 100,000 by 2050.
Without any reassurances from the independent Commission, communities will look to politicians to provide these. The Airports Commission has failed for now to achieve its purpose to take the politics out of the airports debate.
Has this week’s announcement really given the green light to a new runway or just reopened the political debate?
.Follow James Lees on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jrlees1
London is already being threatened by the EU over breaches of legal air quality limits, with air pollution at Heathrow already bordering on these thresholds. An airport as heavily used as Heathrow generates air quality stresses, and if a 2nd Gatwick runway was built, communities around Gatwick face similar challenges to those around Heathrow.
In 2010 The Tories said there would be no new runways at Heathrow, Gatwick or Stansted, and so did the Lib Dems. See http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/london/8678282.stm 12.5.2010
“Plans for a third runway at London’s Heathrow Airport have been scrapped by the new government. …..The decision to cancel the plans came in a joint Conservative-Liberal Democrat policy agreement. …..The new government said it would also refuse any additional runways at Gatwick and Stansted airports.”
AEF response to Airports Commission Interim Report: environmental and social concerns forgotten
Dec 17 2013 (AEF)
The Airports Commission Interim Report was launched today (Tuesday 17th December). In it, the Commission concludes that runway capacity will be under “very substantial” pressure in the South East by 2030 requiring additional runway capacity, even in a carbon constrained world when aviation emissions are constrained to 2005 levels.
In response, Tim Johnson, Director of Aviation Environment Federation[i] said this
“Sir Howard Davies has spoken of decisions on airport capacity needing to balance the national interest with local considerations. Yet the Commission’s report reaches a conclusion on the need for a new runway before it has undertaken an environmental and social analysis that could still rule out all the options on the table.
Building a new runway will not be possible within our national climate targets unless the Government is willing to limit growth at all the other airports in the UK – something the Government will not be willing to do. In his report, Sir Howard Davies estimates the costs to the UK economy of not building a new runway. The costs of blowing our enshrined climate targets will be much higher.
Similarly, previous proposals for airport expansion have not been given the political green light because of insurmountable local constraints relating to air pollution and noise. There is no explanation on how these local obstacles can be overcome. ”
[i] The Aviation Environment Federation is the main UK NGO working exclusively on the environmental impacts of aviation and we play a leading role in the Airport Watch coalition. We represent people affected by airports of all sizes across the UK and those concerned with the growing climate impact of aviation. We want to ensure the debate on airport capacity takes social and environmental concerns into account as well as those that are economical
Three tests for the Airports Commission’s Interim Report
The Commission has emphasised that a ‘predict and provide’ model of airport capacity would be insufficient, and that the scale of capacity needed must be assessed within the context of environmental limits and social considerations that “takes into account the potential constraints on expansion” .
Below, we pose three tests against which the Airports Commission’s Interim Report should be judged.
We ask interested parties to conclude for themselves whether the Interim Report passes these tests and delivers a well based analysis of the potential constraints on expansion, or simply provides the infrastructure the industry claims is necessary.
Does the Commission demonstrate a pathway to meet our national climate change target in a one or two new runways scenario using realistic assumptions?
- In his October speech Sir Howard recognised the advice of the Committee on Climate Change. This Committee estimated using ‘likely’ improvements in technology and operations that a 60% growth in passenger numbers over 2005 levels would not compromise the UK’s emissions target. There is already sufficient space in existing runway capacity to accommodate this growth[ii].
- This means building and using one new runway would require capacity limitations on existing airports in the South East and the rest of the UK if we are to meet our national emissions target[iii].
- The use of a second runway would be dependent on ‘speculative’[iv] technology improvements and a heavy reliance on alternative fuels if the UK is to have any chance of meeting climate targets.
Does the Airports Commission only shortlist options that will not worsen the quality of life for communities around airports?
- Aircraft noise is the main driver of community opposition to airport expansion and is an unacceptable burden on many people living close to airports. Nearly ¾ million people already live within the EU contour of noise annoyance at Heathrow[v], a third of the total number of people affected by aircraft noise across the entire EU.
- Airports likely to be shortlisted, such as Heathrow, are close to and often breach EU limit values on air quality introduced to protect public health[vi].
- Both air pollution and aircraft noise pose risks to public health. Air pollution is estimated to cause 29,000 deaths a year and costs the economy £16 billion each year[vii]. A recent study found that people living in areas around Heathrow with the most aircraft noise were 10-20% more likely to have heart problems and suffer from strokes[viii].
In light of extensive challenges to the assumptions of economic benefits of expansion and recommendations by a well known economic consultancy firm[ix], does the Airports Commission commit to carrying out a Social Cost Benefit Analysis of each of the shortlisted proposals over the course of 2014?
- The economic benefits of airport expansion are frequently highlighted in the media at the expense of wider economic and social costs.
- Each shortlisted proposal should be assessed against a “no new runways” benchmark. Given sufficient capacity exists, it is important to only to consider the additional benefits of funding a new runway.[x]
[i] Quote taken from Sir Howard Davies’ speech ‘Emerging thinking: aviation capacity in the UK’ made at the Centre for London on the 7th October 2013
[ii] In 2011 AEF and WWF carried out research to examine how much growth in passengers and number of movements is possible within existing airport capacity when an aviation carbon target is in place. ‘Available UK airport capacity under a 2050 CO2 target for the aviation sector’ is available from:http://assets.wwf.org.uk/downloads/airport_capacity_report_july_2011.pdf
[iii] AEF and seven other environmental NGOs recommended this to the Airports Commission in an open letter to Sir Howard Davies’ speech on 7 October available online from:http://www.aef.org.uk/?p=1651
[iv] The Committee on Climate Change defines the speculative scenario as very unlikely. The scenario requires technological breakthroughs and a significant increase in the pace of aircraft fuel efficiency improvements. In addition, it would require the development of sustainable biofuels which are speculative, such as algae, or developments in land use so that biofuels can be grown at a large scale.
[v] EU noise annoyance contour is 55 Lden. A definition of Lden can be found on the CAA website:http://www.caa.co.uk/default.aspx?catid=7&pagetype=70&gid=2124&faqid=1268. The actual figure around Heathrow is 725,500 as used in the Airports Commission Discussion paper on noise.
[vi] In 2012, Heathrow breached the annual NO2 limit at the measuring station within the airport compound. Levels of PM10 also breached legal limits on eight separate periods around the Heathrow area. More information is available in the Heathrow Airport air quality review for 2012:http://www.heathrowairwatch.org.uk/documents/Air_Quality_at_Heathrow_Aiport_2012_Report_Issue_1.pdf
[vii] These figures are taken from the Defra webpage on ‘Protecting and enhancing our urban and natural environment to improve public health and wellbeing’.https://www.gov.uk/government/policies/protecting-and-enhancing-our-urban-and-natural-environment-to-improve-public-health-and-wellbeing
[viii] The study was carried out by Kings and Imperial College London. The press release is available here:http://www3.imperial.ac.uk/newsandeventspggrp/imperialcollege/newssummary/news_8-10-2013-16-59-51
[ix] CE Delft released a report in March 2013 titled ‘The Economics of Airport Expansion’. Available from:http://www.cedelft.eu/publicatie/the_economics_of_airport_expansion/1363
[x] Under DfT’s 2013 central forecast, the unconstrained passenger demand will be 320 mppa in unconstrained compared to 315 mppa constrained which would only squeeze out 1.6% of growth forecasted. DfT figures are available from:https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/223839/aviation-forecasts.pdf