Chris Grayling defends Heathrow air quality data

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling has defended the Government's air pollution data on Heathrow proposed third runway amid claims from green campaigners that "outdated" and "contradictory" figures are being manipulated to force through the Airport's expansion.

Appearing in front of the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) in Parliament yesterday (30 November) to provide evidence on the environmental impact of Heathrow expansion, Grayling refuted claims that the Government had underestimated pollutants in baseline figures for diesel vehicles.

A recent study for the Government showed emissions from some diesel vehicles are worse than previously claimed. Green groups fear this could potentially have a major impact on vehicle emissions around the local area of Heathrow’s recently-approved third runway.

However, Grayling underlined his confidence in the Government’s latest sensitivity analysis, saying: “Nothing in the initial indication that we have secured from that data leads us to believe we could not deliver the Heathrow expansion within the limits set out in our documentation. Nothing has happened to change that assumption.

“I cannot conceive a situation where we would not to continue to improve air quality in this country. I see this as a really important public health issue, but it’s a much broader issue about road transport in urban areas around the country, which we have the get to grips with.”

‘Accounting tricks’

EAC chair Mary Creagh sought to remind Grayling that the emissions modelling in the Government’s 2015 air quality plan did not take into account the EU’s real-world driving emissions test which will be enforced in 2021, or the fact that all diesel car emissions have been underreported.

In response to Grayling’s comments, Greenpeace UK transport campaigner Nina Schrank said: “Despite the strenuous efforts of various governments to fudge the new runway proposition, the fact remains that you can’t start at a high level of pollution, add a lot more, and end up with a low level, and so Grayling is forced to continue using outdated and contradictory data to justify the impossible.

“The underlying reason why the Government has so dramatically failed to get the numbers to work for Heathrow is because reality is simply not amenable to accounting tricks.”

Last month, environmental law firm ClientEarth won its High Court case against the UK Government over the failure of ministers to tackle illegal air quality levels across the country. The High Court ruled that the 2015 air quality plan, on which the Heathrow expansion was based, was “over-optimistic” and failed to aim for the earliest possible compliance with EU rules.

In the fallout, the Government was last week ordered to draw up an improved plan by July 2017 which must bring air pollution within legal limits. Climate Change Committee (CCC) chair Lord Deben has since written to the Government warning its plans to expand Heathrow could result in a breach of the UK’s legally-binding carbon targets.

Asked by the EAC about the impact of the High Court ruling on Heathrow’s expansion, Grayling attempted to distance the Heathrow debate from the broader air quality situation.

Grayling said: “It’s actually very important to separate these two issues. I don’t think that the air quality issue addressed in the Supreme Court and the challenge around reducing levels of NOx is really part of the same debate as Heathrow expansion. The air quality issue is about the traffic on our roads, volumes of traffic. It’s a situation that exists around the country, not just around London but many urban cities around the county.

“My own view, and the Government’s view is that we need to take steps to address that way before the issue of the opening of the runway. We cannot sit on what is clearly a major issue for 10 years. The runway is not due for another 10 years, this is an issue that must be addressed much more quickly.”

Transport plans

Grayling concluded that any disruptions arising from the potential noise pollution and increases in carbon and nitrogen emissions at Heathrow could be mitigated by the uptake of advanced on-site technology, such as the electrification of vehicles around the airport. Indeed, Heathrow recently committed to a £2m electric vehicle charging pledge, while the Airport also houses London’s first zero-carbon, fully-autonomous, battery-operated carrier pods.

On a national level, concerns remain that the Government is failing to deliver on reducing the transport’s sector emissions. Indeed, an EAC report recently revealed that the UK faces an uphill battle to reach its 2020 renewable targets across the carbon-intensive transport sector

Grayling sought to alleviate fears yesterday by highlighting the Government’s recent commitment to low-carbon transport. A flurry of consultations on transport and fuels announced by the DfT this week outline the development of new aviation fuel policies, a £390m investment fund into cleaner cars and vans – as outlined in last week’s Autumn Statement – and a boost to the nation’s electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure.

George Ogleby

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