Runway to Doom

January 22, 2010

Awhile back I signed one of those e-petitions on the Downing Street website – part of New Labour’s obsession with creating a facade of participation and e-democracy – like voting at supermarkets, that sort of thing. The petition asked that the government do the following: “to say No to the third runway at Heathrow as a clear signal that UK is serious about climate change.”

The substance of the demand was that “Allowing a third runway is incompatible with the evident necessity to reduce the number of flights before it would be usable. There are many regional airports that can take the strain in the meantime but long-term we MUST fly less than now.”

Unfortunately, the petition has drawn a most disappointing response from the government, which refuses to take the threat of climate change seriously. Policy makers remain wedded to the need for more long haul flights and continue to refuse to take a lead in Europe (let alone the world) on reforming aviation so that we can find a flightpath to radically lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Here’s what Downing Street had to say:

Heathrow is the UK’s only hub airport and it is not realistic to suggest that the growing demand for long haul air travel can simply be redistributed to regional airports.  Restricting capacity at Heathrow to the current levels would not cut carbon – it would only shift air traffic elsewhere across Europe, at an unacceptable cost to the UK economy.  We must tackle the environmental impacts of aviation, while ensuring we continue to harness the significant social and economic benefits.

For a start, the petition did not demand that the increase in long haul air traffic be diverted to regional airports. It demanded that it be curtailed, short of a technical miracle that would allow zero carbon aviation. Then we are given the usual excuse that taking difficult measures at home would present an opportunity to unscrupulous foreigners, a cynical evasion which fails to consider that other European governments will be pressured into making changes, or may wish to in order to gain an advantage in green technologies. They may also wish to reform transport as part of strategies to redirect tourism to local resorts and regions, which many people living on Britain’s coasts would surely welcome.

The final phrase, telling us that “We must tackle the environmental impacts of aviation, while ensuring we continue to harness the significant social and economic benefits” appears to be perilously close to advising us that we can indeed have our cake and eat it too (or allow shareholders in BAA and corporate travellers to do so).

In terms of policy, we are told that the government is committed to ensuring that emissions from aviation in 2050 do not exceed those in 2005. But this is a seriously controversial statement. Apparently, “even in the least optimistic case, the target can still be achieved while allowing significant growth in air travel.”

Because the Committee on Climate Change has reported that passenger numbers can increase by 60 percent and flight numbers by 54 percent and we can still cut emissions, the 10 percent more flights projected to result from the expansion of Heathrow can be easily accommodated.

Yet the CCC report was an extremely optimistic document. In its projections section, it presented three scenarios, ranging from “likely” to “optimistic” to “speculative.” There was no place for cynicism or pessimism about the chances of meeting the government target. For example, passenger numbers in the “likely” scenario were randomly deducted from the projection that without “capacity constraints” and an effective carbon price, total numbers would 200 percent above 2005 levels. Instead, the CCC decided that numbers would most likely be just 60 percent greater.

Moreover, the “optimistic” scenario was not all that optimistic from a global environmental perspective as it envisioned a 20 percent “penetration” of the airline fuel market by biofuels. That would be a disaster for ecosystems around the world, assuming that miracles are not achieved in biofuel production techniques. If they are, then 20 percent would seem to be a rather disappointing aspiration. I’m assuming that the CCC researchers worked on the basis of current biofuel production.

In any case, it won’t do for the government to hide behind the CCC report. After all, the CCC recommended that future governments implement a carbon tax above a vastly increase price of carbon by 2050, limits to further airport expansion (with Heathrow permitted but no more) and, that there be “restrictions on take off and landing slots even where airports have the theoretical capacity available.” This last point begs the question as to whether those slots should be catered for in the first place.

The government’s response shows clearly that it has not reacted seriously to the need to reduce air travel and, by extension, to the threat of climate change. It seems to have taken comfort from the CCC report, but a closer reading of that report does not provide much reassurance at all.

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