Heathrow and Gatwick battle it out in the media, but is either environmentally deliverable?
Gatwick and Heathrow have been trying to get the best publicity they can for their runway, while simultaneously having a dig at each other. But does either deliver on environmental issues? Many of the new ideas, such as noise compensation schemes and a congestion charge, aim to tackle these impacts but much of what has been proposed either misses the key questions or makes impressive promises on issues that are outside the control of airports. Heathrow’s only contribution towards cutting carbon emissions appears to be using some renewable energy in its new terminal and incentivising efficient aircraft. They remain silent on inconvenient issues. Giving the go-ahead to any of the runway options would mean UK carbon emissions would have to be cut elsewhere, either though imposing limits on regional airports, or expecting other sectors and industries to deliver near impossible emissions reductions. UK aviation has been given a very lax emissions target of only having to keep its CO2 emissions to 2005 levels by 2050. The assumption that this means an increase of 60% in passengers, or 55% in flights depends on carbon cuts in line with the rate of growth. It is by no means clear those carbon efficiencies will, or can, be made.
Heathrow and Gatwick battle it out in the media, but is either environmentally deliverable?
Gatwick and Heathrow have been building up to this week for some time so that they could submit their updated proposals for a new runway to the government-appointed Airports Commission. They have done their best to keep the media interested by drip feeding their new ideas to the public while simultaneously having a dig at their rival.
Much of the media reporting has pitted the two airports against each other with a focus on which of the three schemes (two at Heathrow and one at Gatwick) would offer greatest benefit and be the easiest to deliver.
But do any of the new proposals deliver on environmental issues? Many of the new ideas, such as noise compensation schemes and a congestion charge, aim to tackle these impacts but much of what has been proposed either misses the key questions or makes impressive promises on issues that are outside the control of airports.
The new Heathrow proposal, for example, while seeking a 50% increase in flights, makes a commitment to “keep CO2 emissions within UK climate change targets“. The UK Government has also made this commitment – the Climate Change Act – and Heathrow’s only contribution towards this appears to be using some renewable energy in its new terminal and incentivising efficient aircraft.
Gatwick, while responsible for a smaller proportion of the UK’s emissions today, promises a similar increase in flight numbers and the addition of the many long haul flights it promises would carry a big carbon penalty.
Unlike Heathrow, the UK is required to meet its commitment on CO2 emissions under legislation. Giving the go-ahead to any of the runway options would mean emissions would have to be cut elsewhere, either though imposing limits on other airports, like Birmingham or Manchester (which currently have room to grow), or expecting other sectors and industries to deliver near impossible emissions reductions.
Heathrow promises to play its part in meeting local air quality limits but its commitments on this look shallow. The airport plans, for example, to introduce a congestion charge for those accessing the airport by road if a new runway is built. But air pollution at Heathrow is already above EU legal limits and as pollution from aircraft themselves adds to the problem, an additional 270,000 flights for an extra 40 million passengers and a doubling of freight capacity is likely to significantly increase emissions. A congestion charge would have to be spectacularly high in order to compensate for this.
On both noise and air pollution issues Gatwick claims a comparative advantage over its rivals, as its rural location means that there is a lower population density in the area and fewer sources of air pollution. But it is that very rural location, with its low levels of background noise, that is valued by the thousands of people who would be affected by a second runway at Gatwick.
Comparing itself favourably with Heathrow, where noise affects more people than at any other airport in Europe, doesn’t mean there is no noise problem at Gatwick, even today, and air pollution doesn’t need to breach legal limits to be harmful.
While all three runway proposals offer some sweeteners to deal with environmental impacts, none has been able to show how noise could be brought within the levels that are safe for human health or how a new runway could be compatible with the UK’s commitments on climate change.
With additional problems in relation to surface access and air pollution, the Airports Commission will have its work cut out in making a new runway look like an attractive investment for the next Government.
An AirportWatch member adds:
Neither Heathrow nor Gatwick has explained how they will deal with their carbon emissions being a huge proportion of the UK’s aviation carbon emissions, and how much greater a proportion this would be if a new runway was built. If Heathrow or Gatwick got a runway, and used it fully, the carbon emissions from other UK airports may need to be reduced. There is currently no mechanism by which this would be done, but the operators of other significant regional airports may well look at a new south east runway nervously.
Until Heathrow, Gatwick or indeed the Airports Commission itself explain how their expansion is compatible with the Climate Change Act, the presumption must be that it is NOT compatible, and that any new runways cannot proceed without representing a fundamental challenge to the UK’s response to dangerous climate change.
The CCC guidance in 2009 recommended that 55% more flights than in 2005 could be fitted within the carbon ceiling, by 2050 – on condition that carbon efficiencies were made of the same scale. Thereby keeping the emissions broadly at the same level each year, of some 37.5 million tonnes CO2 per year. If these carbon efficiencies ( NOT including carbon trading with other sectors ) do not come about, then UK aviation cannot expand by that amount. ie. by another heavily use, long-haul runway, which is what Heathrow and Gatwick want ( as Gatwick hopes for more long haul destinations).
This is what the CCC guidance, on which the Airports Commission depends, says on carbon cuts by the UK aviation industry, and future aviation expansion:
Page 10 CCC
Achieving the aviation emissions target
• Given prudent assumptions on likely improvements in fleet fuel efficiency and biofuels penetration, demand growth of around 60% would be compatible with keeping CO2
emissions in 2050 no higher than in 2005:
– In our Likely scenario, assumptions on improvement in fleet fuel efficiency
and biofuels penetration result in annual carbon intensity reduction of
– The cumulative reduction of around 35% in 2050 provides scope for
achieving the target with around 55% more Air Traffic Movements (ATMs).
With increasing load factors over time this could allow for around 60%
more passengers than in 2005.
– Given currently planned capacity expansion and with a demand response
to the projected carbon price and to some of the opportunities for modal
shift, demand could grow around 115% between now and 2050.
– Constraints on demand growth in addition to the projected carbon price
would therefore be required to meet the 2050 target.
• Future technological progress may make more rapid demand growth than 60% compatible with the target, but it is not prudent to plan on the assumption that such progress will be achieved:
Page 7 :
The report also notes the potential implications of non-CO2 aviation effects
on global warming. The scale of such effects is still scientifically uncertain, and
the effects are not covered by the Kyoto Protocol, the UK Climate Change Act
or the Government’s aviation target. The Committee notes the likely need to
account for these effects in future global and UK policy frameworks, but we
do not propose a specific approach in this report. Our assessment of required
policies is therefore focused on the target as currently defined – keeping 2050
UK aviation CO2 emissions to no more than 37.5 MtCO2
In January 2009 the Government set a new target to reduce UK aviation
emissions to 2005 levels or below in 2050 as part of its decision to support
expansion of Heathrow. ……
The target is consistent with assumptions that it is prudent not to plan for net
credit purchase by the aviation industry further out to 2050, and that other
countries will be operating under similar constraints on aviation emissions:
• The fact that the target is set in terms of gross rather than net emissions (i.e.
it relates to actual emissions rather than emissions net of purchase of credits
from other sectors or from the international carbon markets) reflects an
assumption that the supply of cheap credits will be exhausted over time and
that it is therefore important for the aviation sector to focus on reducing its
The chart given by the CCC in their guidance shows management of demand for air travel as a key part of keeping UK aviation emissions down.
By contrast, the chart ( from “Sustainable Aviation” substitutes carbon trading for reduction in air passenger demand, therefore being contrary to the CCC advice.
The two charts, for comparison:
In the Heathrow document “Taking Britain further” here are the relevant extracts on carbon emissions and local air quality:
[By contrast, the Committee on Climate Change had a less unrealistic scenario for future UK aviation emissions. ]