‘Climate-wrecking’ Heathrow Airport expansion approved by Government

The long-anticipated expansion of London's Heathrow Airport has been approved by Government ministers - a decision that has been lambasted by green groups and environmental campaigners for its potential impact on Britain's air quality and emissions.

The decision to give the go-ahead for plans to build a third runway at Heathrow instead of expanding its rival Gatwick was confirmed in the House of Commons at lunchtime today (25 October), after a Cabinet sub-committee met this morning at 10 Downing Street to discuss its viability.

The decision will be put to the House of Commons to form a National Policy Statement – part of the planning process – in winter 2017/18, after a “full and fair public consultation” on the expansion plans is undertaken by the Government.

VIDEO: CGI fly through of Heathrow Airport expansion

The approved expansion of what is already one of the world’s busiest airports has been described as a “climate-wrecking” decision by green groups, with widespread fears that today’s verdict is “incompatible” with the UK’s commitment to legally-binding climate targets, considering the impact it could have on air pollution levels.

Friends of the Earth’s head of campaigns Andrew Pendleton, who lives under the flight path in west London, said: “Expanding Heathrow would be a hugely damaging blow for local people, and makes a complete mockery of government commitments to tackle climate change.

“Local communities now face more noise, more air pollution and more misery from a quarter of a million extra flights each year.  With the Government poised to sign the Paris Agreement, it’s decision to expand Heathrow – shortly after forcing fracking on the people of Lancashire – looks deeply cynical. 

“However this is only the first step on a long journey that will see communities, councils and climate campaigners continue the battle to reverse this misjudged and damaging decision.”

Greenpeace UK executive director John Sauven added: “A third runway at Heathrow would be a waste of time, money and lives. It would make Londoners’ air more dangerous to breathe, contributing to an air pollution crisis that already kills thousands. And it would load the atmosphere with as much extra carbon as some entire countries pump out.”

Breaking the budget

Politically, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Education Secretary Justine Greening are among a host of Conservative Party members that have publicly criticised Heathrow’s expansion, while Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson earlier argued that the decision is “wrong” and a “mistake”, citing increased pollution and noise levels. London Mayor Sadiq Khan has also repeatedly voiced his opposition to proposals, while his competitor in the recent race to City Hall, Zac Goldsmith, has reportedly vowed to resign and trigger a by-election in his Richmond constituency if the expansion does now go ahead.

The Green Party has been another of the more vocal groups in the nationwide protest against the expansion, with the party’s Co-Leader Caroline Lucas claiming that today’s decision will “bust” any hope the UK has in meeting climate change commitments. “We know that that laying more tarmac at either Heathrow or Gatwick will bust any hope we have of meeting our climate change commitments, and inflict noise and air pollution on already blighted local communities,” Lucas said.

“Instead of expanding these airports, the Government should introduce a ‘frequent flyer’ levy to reduce the need for any new runway capacity and invest the money raised in further measures to offer climate-friendly alternatives to air travel. I urge ministers to look at this proposal – and hope that opposition parties can join together in opposing airport expansion and backing this sensible alternative.”

On top of the concerns about increased noise and pollution levels in London, the Heathrow Airport expansion could also have severe ramifications for the UK’s overarching climate ambitions. Recent analysis by CarbonBrief identified that, as demand for flights inevitably increases due to Heathrow’s extra capacity, Britain’s aviation sector could account for around two-thirds of the nation’s Carbon Budget, relative to 1.5C global warming target established through the Paris Agreement.

The UK’s Committee on Climate Change (CCC), which monitors the country’s overall progress against Carbon Budgets, has issued a statement today, calling on the Government to publish a strategic policy framework for UK aviation emissions, which are currently below the level they were in 2005.

But while today’s approval of the third runway at Heathrow will do little to aid the UK in reducing emissions by 57% by 2032 – and by 80% by 2050 – as part of the recently-approved Fifth Carbon Budget, some studies have suggested that the expansion would not necessarily lead to a breach of European air pollution laws.

Hidden benefits?

Recent research conducted by the University of Cambridge and seen by the BBC suggested that, while the runway could lead to higher levels of nitrogen dioxide, this would be offset by a reduction in pollution from nearby traffic. But the Aviation Environment Federation (AEF) told the BBC that the research was “highly speculative”.

Further analysis by the Independent Transport Commission (ITC) also concluded that any disruptions arising from the potential noise pollution and increases in carbon and nitrogen emissions could be mitigated by the uptake of advanced 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.

Heathrow has also claimed that there will also be some benefits of expansion for the delivery of low-carbon technology and green business services in the world’s emerging markets. In the below video, the Airport profiles BBOXX – a briefcase-sized battery box that provides reliable solar energy in 35 developing countries – which will apparently be able to expand its offering internationally thanks to the expansion.

VIDEO: Heathrow Airport expansion supported by renewable energy innovator

As a winner of edie’s 2015 Sustainable Leaders Awards for its energy management practices, and a finalist of the 2017 Awards for water management, Heathrow recently became the first airport in the world to simultaneously hold four certifications from the Carbon Trust Standard for its strong performance on supply chain management, carbon reductions and water and waste management.

The Airport has also established a set of relatively ambitious sustainability goals as part of its ongoing Responsible Heathrow 2020 pledge. Targets include a 34% reduction in carbon emissions from energy used in buildings from a 2008 baseline, and 70% of operational contract waste being recycled.

Following today’s decision, a spokesperson for Heathrow Airport said: “Expansion of Heathrow is the only option that will connect all the UK to global growth, helping to build a stronger and fairer economy. We await the full details, but Heathrow stands ready to work with Government, businesses, airlines and our local communities to deliver an airport that is fair, affordable and secures the benefits of expansion for the whole of the UK.”

Luke Nicholls, Matt Mace & George Ogleby

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