Heathrow says its plan for a third runway is driven by its ambition to be the most sustainable airport in the world. It also says that carbon from flights makes up 96% of the carbon emissions from Heathrow. So it is obvious that the most sustainable option would be not to expand at all.
In May 2019 the UK Committee on Climate Change advised the Government that reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050 requires significant and urgent ramping up of policy. In June 2019 the Government made the target of net zero by 2050 legally binding.
The Climate Change Committee advised that international aviation must be included in the net-zero target and said that aviation must play its part in reducing emissions. According to one estimate, aviation accounts for approximately 12% of UK emissions. The Committee said there would be a need to constrain growth in demand for aviation. At present, UK airports are planning to grow far beyond what the UK can accommodate and still achieve its net zero target.
Aviation has a number of options to reduce emissions. We welcome Heathrow’s proposals on plug-in power at the terminal and one-engine taxiing – but given that this has been in their plans for ten years, and is still not standard operating procedure, it does not invite much hope. There are also exciting possibilities for more efficient planes in the future. But these changes will not compensate for the planned growth in flights.
The Climate Change Committee said that meeting the UK’s target for net zero emissions should not rely on international offsets. The CORSIA scheme for carbon offsets applies only to international flights and, because it only applies to growth between 2021 and 2035, would only offset 6% of the emissions expected between now and 2050.
There are many problems with offsetting emissions from flights. If we take a flight today, and buy offsets, the carbon will not be extracted from the atmosphere immediately and plans for offsetting may be affected by future events, such as wildfires, political change, or climate change itself. Offsets may not be truly additional to schemes that would have happened anyway. In any case, CO2 in the atmosphere is still growing, and we need to take every available measure to reduce it, including both reducing emissions and drawing down more carbon from the atmosphere.
Governments must therefore take action to constrain demand.
Demand for air travel depends on the price and availability of flights. An EU report recently concluded that a minimal jet fuel tax would cut the number of travellers by 11%, and reduce emissions by the same amount, while having a negligible effect on employment. Taxpayer investment is also needed in roads and other infrastructure surrounding the airport. Will taxpayers want to continue to subsidise flying when they see that it is holding back progress towards the net zero target?
In this context it makes no sense to expand Heathrow, or any other UK airport. Expanding Heathrow would stimulate demand for air travel, especially long-haul flights, which are the most damaging.
Heathrow says it will ‘connect the whole of the UK to global growth’. Yet ten of its routes are to destinations that can be reached by train from central London in under five hours. This includes one of its most popular routes, Amsterdam. Six of Heathrow’s destinations can be reached by train in under three hours.
Two thirds of flights from Heathrow are for leisure purposes. In the past, flying for leisure has been associated with freedom, status and progress, but a popular movement, of which Flight Free 2020 is a part, is challenging this. Now, people boast of the destinations they have visited by train.
One change Heathrow could make to its plans would be to demand better rail connections to the airport from UK cities. This would not only reduce the carbon emissions of travelling to the airport, but also free up landing and take-off slots currently used by domestic flights.
In addition to the impact of flights on global climate, expanding Heathrow will damage the local environment, causing the destruction of homes, the displacement of people, a deterioration in air quality, increased traffic and congestion, and noise levels that will impact on the health of thousands of people in London. Even before the third runway is completed, Heathrow plans an increase in flights, giving the lie to its claims that it is already full.
Heathrow knows that climate change is real. We know that because it has plans for dealing with its effects. A third runway at Heathrow would make it impossible for the UK to meet legally-binding emissions targets. Stopping Heathrow expansion would, conversely, help to constrain growth in demand, save taxpayers money and have a positive impact on air quality, noise and health in neighbouring areas.