Report: Heathrow expansion will create a ‘black hole’ in future carbon budgets

The UK Government's lack of commentary on how it plans to mitigate the environmental impacts of the third runway expansion at Heathrow Airport could create a "black hole" in future carbon budgets, a new report has warned.

The new report, released today (23 February) from the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), raises concerns over the lack of evidence provided by the Government to ease environmental degradation fears associated with the Heathrow expansion.

The report notes that the EAC has “no confidence” in the Government’s ability to increase growth in the aviation sector by 60% while also meeting national carbon reduction requirements.

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, some studies have suggested that the expansion would not necessarily lead to a breach of European air pollution laws and national carbon budgets.

But, it is the EAC’s belief that headline costs and benefits listed in the Government’s approval of the expansion would “assume a black hole in the 2050 carbon budget that other sectors, such as energy or industry, would have to fill”.

The EAC’s chair Mary Creagh said: “If the Government wants to get Heathrow expansion off the ground it needs to show that a third runway can be built and run without exceeding legal limits on air pollution or breaching our carbon budgets.

“We have seen little evidence of the ‘step change’ in the Government’s approach we called for in our previous report. Worryingly, the Government looks set to water down the limits on aviation emissions recommended by its own climate change advisors. That would mean other sectors of the economy, like energy and industry, having to cut their carbon emissions even deeper and faster.”

Creagh said that mitigating the impacts of the expansion shouldn’t be treated as an “afterthought”, warning that failure to deliver on certain environmental promises could lead to legal and commercial risks.

Hypotheses and hypocrisies

The report highlights concerns relating to a lack of Government guarantees that air quality targets will be maintained once the UK leaves the European Union (EU) and called for a new air quality strategy to assess the impact of the expansion on public health.

London breached annual air pollution limits just five days into 2017, and the EAC is worried that limits could be watered-down to account for the runway expansion.

This would be in direct contrast to the Government’s assurances the expansion would meet climate commitments through a continued involvement in the European Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) through to 2030.

The report claimed that it is “imperative” that the UK remains within the system, despite the Government telling the EAC that it intends to base its policy on scenarios that use assumptions about passenger use and demand. Unsurprisingly, these assumptions are more optimistic than issues raised by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) in the past.

Specifically, the report notes that the Government’s approach to the runway’s carbon emissions are based on “a hypothetical international framework to reduce emissions which does not yet exist”. The report warns that these hypothetical figures would place international aviation emissions 15% higher than assumed levels for the Fifth Carbon Budget for 2028 to 2032.

The report also called for road traffic surrounding Heathrow to be “rigorously monitored” in order to hold the Government to account if the promise that no increase in traffic flow is found to be false. The report also highlighted that measures to tackle noise pollution “lack ambition”.

Commenting on the findings, WWF’s climate change specialist James Beard said: “The Government has no plan for dealing with the carbon emissions from a new runway at Heathrow. In order to meet the UK’s emissions targets the Government must take up the opportunity to fix this in the forthcoming Emissions Reduction Plan.

“Without a credible plan for tackling aviation’s climate impacts, expanding airport capacity flies in the face of the UK’s commitments to tackling climate change.”

Heathrow’s efforts

While the Government is facing criticism for its handling of the expansion, Heathrow Airport is introducing an array of low-carbon technologies to help shrink its environmental impact.

The Independent Transport Commission (ITC) has previously suggested that impacts could be mitigated through the introduction of green technologies, and Heathrow has heeded the advice.

The airport became the first airport in the world to simultaneously hold four certifications from the Carbon Trust Standard and has also announced a £2m plan to ‘go electric’ with the installation of more than 135 electric vehicle (EV) charging stations around the area.

Heathrow Airport has also engineered new zero-carbon, fully autonomous, battery-operated carrier pods to act as shuttles around the streets of Greenwich.

Last month, Heathrow Airport’s chief executive John Holland-Kaye took to the stage at edie’s Sustainability Leaders Forum to announce that all of the Airport’s energy usage will be generated from renewable sources within the next few months, ahead of its controversial expansion.

Matt Mace

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