MPs criticise Government over carbon ‘fantasy’ for Heathrow expansion

The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has criticised the UK Government for refusing to commit to air quality targets in relation to the third runway expansion, labelling the associated carbon calculations as a "fantasy".

The Government has aligned itself with the findings of the Airports Commission, which suggests that Heathrow airport could expand without exceeding legal air quality levels. The EAC issued a report in February, warning that the expansion at Heathrow Airport could create a “black hole” in future carbon budgets.

In a response to the EAC’s concerns, published this week, the Government has reaffirmed its belief that the Airport Commission’s carbon scenarios and measures are “realistic”, noting that none of the scenarios place extra pressure on other sectors to reduce emissions. Specifically, the Government noted it “remains open to considering all feasible measures to ensure the aviation sector contributes fairly to UK emissions reductions”.

The EAC chair, Mary Creagh has since suggested that the upcoming general election will enable the Government to “duck their responsibilities to the environment”, noting that no guarantees have been made that EU air quality policies will remain in place for the expansion to adhere to.

“Heathrow expansion should only go ahead if the Government has a clear plan for the extra air pollution, carbon emissions and noise,” Creagh said today (28 April).

“I am pleased to see the Government agrees with my Committee’s recommendation on measuring the noise impacts, but Ministers are still refusing to guarantee that EU air quality targets won’t be quietly dropped after we leave the EU, have no national plan for air pollution, and their carbon calculations are a fantasy.”

The secretary of state for Transport Chris Grayling has stated that “we must tackle air quality and noise, and meet our obligations on carbon both during and after construction”. The Transport Committee is expected to scrutinise draft recommendations and will publish its report by summer recess 2017.

With the UK planning to reduce emissions by 57% by 2032 – and by 80% by 2050 – as part of the recently-approved Fifth Carbon Budget, critics have questioned how the airport expansion will align with these national policies.

Thursday’s High Court ruling to publish an air quality plan by July places extra pressure on the Government to outline how the expansion will fit in with the UK Air Quality Plan.

“The Government is determined to meet its air quality obligations and to do so in the shortest time possible. We will publish the final UK Air Quality Plan by 31 July,” the response notes. “Final development consent will only be granted if the secretary of state is satisfied that, with mitigation, the scheme would be compliant with legal air quality requirements.

“The Government is aware of the desire for certainty around what exiting the EU means for our environmental policy and legislative framework. That is why the Prime Minister announced last year our plans for a Great Repeal Bill. The Bill will convert EU law into UK law as it stands at the moment before we leave the EU.”

Heathrow’s hope

Heathrow Airport is confident that it will place “no more cars on the road” as a result of expansion, and plans to utilise new public transport routes, car-sharing and electric vehicles to mitigate road-associated carbon emissions. When questioned on the feasibility of this target, the Government merely noted that the responsibility “rests with the applicant”.

In recent months, Heathrow has launched Heathrow 2.0, a ‘sustainability super-strategy’ ahead of expansion, while also questioning air quality omissions from a Government consultation. The Airport’s sustainability & environment director Matthew Gorman reiterated a call for the Environment Agency (EA) to be handed a role as an independent aviation air quality authority to oversee Heathrow’s expansion proposals.

As part of its response, the Government revealed that it will publish an Aviation Strategy white paper in 2018 as part of a broader aviation commitment. The Government also reaffirmed its intention to participate in the global aviation emissions scheme from 2021.

Matt Mace

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie