Mr Johnson’s estuary proposal, as it is never described, has loomed large in the aviation debate, despite its abject lack of seriousness. London’s mayor put forward an entirely new airport on the Isle of Grain, which would cost five to 10 times as much as expanding Heathrow. The technocratic Airports Commission were bound to reject it, although they chickened out of quite saying so to Boris Johnson last year, agreeing to give his pet project one final look, even as they dropped it from the shortlist. Yesterday, adding new arguments about birdlife and the sheer dislocation of moving the capital’s main airport 70 miles to their original cost concerns, they finally gave the formal thumbs down.
Mr Johnson was having none of it – insisting his scheme was “not dead” at all, because in the end it will not be for Sir Howard Davies and his commissioners to decide, but instead for the next government. As he plots his move from City Hall over to the Uxbridge parliamentary constituency, close to Heathrow, if the dismal environmental legacy of his mayoralty isn’t weighing on him, deep resentment about air traffic noise across the west and south-west of the metropolis assuredly is. A Conservative party that absorbed painful London losses in May will not recover in the capital without rebuilding in these areas of historic strength. Attention could yet turn away from the two proposals for a bigger Heathrow, and towards expanding Gatwick in true-blue Sussex. The stage is set for dull debates about “hub economics” and the feasibility of one city hosting two different sites at which the world disembarks, buys some lunch and a magazine, then clambers on to another plane.
The question of where is drowning out the question of whether bigger London airports are desirable. Amid the sound and fury over noise, the deeper environmental damage done by the carbon belched out by jet engines has dropped out of the equation. Just a few years ago, at the depth of the Great Recession, Ed Miliband tried (and for the most part failed) to resist Heathrow expansion while inside the Labour government, and in opposition David Cameron made green play of making a stand against. Today a recovering economy ought to permit more discussion about the sort of growth we want, but policy appears to boil down to “planning for rising demand”.
The argument may have fallen silent, and yet the implications of unresting climate science grow ever closer. As the melting of the Greenland ice sheet picks up pace, those solemn promises of an 80% cut in emissions by 2050 could be rendered entirely hollow by aviation. Yes, increased efficiency may do some good, as may biofuels. It is true, too, that some of the immediate additional climate-changing costs of flying could be easier to reverse than the fundamental damage done by the carbon, which makes it tricky to be precise about the numbers. But then not much precision is required, since the only carbon price that bites on air tickets at all comes from the emissions trading system. It bites only on European flights, and some experts say it currently leaves carbon 100 times cheaper than it will eventually need to be.
Without gripping aviation in the south-east, Britain could probably only hit its green ambitions by restricting northern airports, which hardly fits with regional policy, or by making reductions of unrealistic depth in other sectors. The biggest chunk of air travel is holidaying, where the net effect is always to deepen the current account deficit with sunnier parts of the world. In the Skype age, the proportion of flyers on business trips has been in decline, and with high-speed rail in prospect, internal flights could become entirely superfluous.
The economics do not dictate that fast projected growth in air travel must be taken as a given: it ought to be possible to manage demand instead. But given Europe’s broken carbon market, there is no easy way to do that without keeping a lid on capacity. Instead, however, Westminster indulges passengers and airlines with the old lie: the sky’s the limit.
There are many comments below the article, many sensible:
Below is one comment:
“I am afraid this is no longer the choice. We can keep flying, which I agree we very much want to do, and help tip climate change into a completely uncontrollable state (if we have not already) or we can come to the realities presented by physics and economics that say that aircraft that are green enough to really make a difference are no where near being developed and they certainly are not even on the horizon as far as broad acceptance and use. This pipe-dream technological optimism that you and others put forward is dangerous in that keeps us from really taking a good look at the sustainability of the now globally dominant economic/political model.
“Jet flight is one of the surest indicators that global capitalism is completely unsustainable. The fact that this insanely energy/carbon intensive mode of travel is so necessary to perpetuate this economic model should cause everyone to pause and contemplate if jet flight (along with other behaviorus) is really worth the kind of world run-away climate change will leaver us with.”