Heathrow’s confidence in air quality compliance unlikely to silence expansion doubts

Heathrow Airport remains "confident" of the plans it has put in place to build a third runway without causing any extra air pollution in the surrounding areas, but concerns from green groups and MPs have raised questions whether Heathrow should merely comply with legislation or push beyond it.

Heathrow’s director of sustainability and environment, Matt Gorman, and emissions strategy manager, Andrew Chen, fielded questions from green groups and London Assembly Environment Committee members in relation to air and noise pollution last week (16 March).

The meeting gave MPs and campaigners from Clean Air in London, Friends of the Earth and the Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise (HACAN) the chance to scrutinise Heathrow’s ambitious strategy, underpinned by the airport’s controversial expansion plans.

The significant growth in flights and infrastructure caused by Heathrow’s expansion will be carbon-neutral under this new strategy, with the airport detailing plans to offset an inevitable increase in emissions through the restoration of peatlands in the UK, alongside other carbon-offsetting schemes it will be researching.

Ultimately, much of the questions and concerns raised during the session – which focused heavily on Heathrow’s pledge not to raise surface-based air pollution from travel to and from the airport – can be traced back to the airport complying with Government legislation and recommendations.

The airport’s relationship with air pollution was brought into question by campaigners who argued that “stringent conditions”, set by the government, made the expansion unfeasible due to an anticipated rise in surface-based vehicle emissions and pollution.

Even when Gorman revealed that half of the passengers arriving to the airport would do so by public transport, facilitated by infrastructure upgrades to surrounding rail connections and the anticipated construction of HS2, MPs and green groups still cast doubt over the airport’s ability to hold itself to account against its ambitions.

In response, Gorman revealed that the airport wants an independent regulator to be established, preferably the Environment Agency (EA), to “put an emphasis on upfront consultation and place scrutiny on our plans” and that the ambition to ensure that surface-based pollution doesn’t increase could become a binding target.

“As we go through the planning process I would expect us to consider [making the surface transport pledge a binding target] and look at it in an appropriate way,” Gorman said. “Critically, we have advocated the role of the EA as an independent regulator on air quality. We think that is the right answer to provide the right level of scrutiny to hold us to account.

“We’ve said that capacity should only be released once it’s been demonstrated that it can be done while meeting the relevant air quality regulations. We think we have a very solid plan to achieve that but we understand that people will want scrutiny and we think the EA should be doing this.”

Law-abiding citizens

While attendees welcomed the notion of an independent regulator, they lamented “flawed” modelling techniques used by the Government and the Airports Commission – which recommended Heathrow as the site for the expansion – that had “misdirected” itself in relation to air quality.

Clean Air London’s founder Simon Birkett noted the concerns of legal opinions obtained from environmental lawyer Robert McCracken, which stated that worsening pollution in any areas that already exceed legal limits would break the law.

This goes against the rulings and recommendations of the Airports Commission’s review. Birkett claimed that the approved approach “essentially made it so that you can do what you want in worsening air quality locally, provided it was worse still somewhere else”.

Birkett also agreed with the Committee that Heathrow’s surface-based pledge was a step in the right direction, but highlighted concerns over transparency.

“There is no clarity at all on surface action, on who will pay for it to achieve objectives,” Birkett said. “I feel that the case for Heathrow, which didn’t exist before we started, has become even weaker.

“The Airports Commission had misdirected itself in law, McCracken ridiculed that idea and made it clear that a robust plan needs to be in place before you give the approval to Heathrow.”

The Airports Commission enquiry was unable to confirm whether the expansion proposals would remain within EU limits for air quality. Gorman and Chen outlined that it was down to the Government to meet air quality limits, which have already been breached in parts of London, but that the airport was committed to playing its part in reducing health-based concerns.

Chen revealed that Heathrow operates 22 monitoring sites within its network and the four local authorities that is supports. These sites can provide 15-minute real-time data on air quality levels that are then hosted publicly online.

Chen admitted that 2016 levels were “worsening at almost all monitors”, but that these would be the same throughout Central London, due to the capital’s rising air quality concerns which have resulted in legal challenges.

“While Greater London has seen an increase [in air pollution] between 2015 to 2016, if you look over time it is a decreasing trend,” Chen said. “You can’t just look at that one year as indicative over the last 10 years, that trend is evident around Heathrow and across the UK.

“The things that we can control as an airport are our emissions and we have seen drastic reductions over the last several years. We’ve recorded a 16% reduction in ground-based NOx levels between 2009 and 2013 and we continue to see great emissions reductions from ground-based sources.”

A price on confidence

Gorman noted that three-quarters of traffic around the airport was not related to Heathrow, although he admitted that the airport can and will play its part in reducing air pollution. The airport has already committed a £1bn surface action plan to encourage the public transport pledge.

In a speech at edie’s Sustainability Leaders Forum, Heathrow Airport’s chief executive John Holland-Kaye revealed that 10,000 vehicles airside have been converted to electric, and that the airport has pioneered the use of hydrogen vehicles in the UK.

Holland-Kaye has also called on the Mayor of London to extend the Ultra Low Emission Zone out to the M25 to cover the Heathrow area and Gorman shared his chief executive’s confidence in the ability to mitigate air pollution and emissions increases.

“Two historical facts give us confidence,” Gorman added. “Since the 1970s, the number of flights from Heathrow has doubled and the noise footprint area has fallen by 90%. Since the early 1990s, the number of passengers has increased by 80% but airport related traffic has stayed about the same. We take confidence that we have done it before.”

A final decision on the expansion will be put to MPs next year and, if all goes to plan, the planning process for Heathrow’s third runway will be over by 2020.

Matt Mace

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