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Runway v No runway

Runway v No runway


The idea Heathrow will remain a global hub thanks to the addition of a third runway needs serious examination, writes Adrienne Copithorne

In 2008, Theresa May said a third runway at Heathrow would undermine our national climate change targets. Now, as prime minister, she has apparently changed her mind, as the government announced on 25 October 2016 that it was in favour of a new runway at Heathrow over a second runway at Gatwick. According to its official statement: ‘The government believes that a new runway at Heathrow can be delivered within the UK’s carbon obligations.’

With the decision structured as a ‘runway vs runway’ rather than ‘runway v no runway’ and other concerns, such as noise and air pollution at the forefront of protestors’ minds, the issue of climate change from greenhouse gas emissions was sidelined. Transport Secretary Chris Grayling dismissed concerns by referring only vaguely to a ‘whole raft of measures to address the issue’ which must be balanced against the need to ensure Britain’s prosperity through increasing provision for air travel.

Although aviation at the moment accounts for only 6 per cent of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, they have doubled since 1990, whereas economy wide emissions have reduced by a third, according to the independent committee on climate change. The government has indicated it expects to mitigate the increase in emissions from air travel in and out of Heathrow by cutting back emissions in other sectors. This of course presumes that the predicted emissions reductions in other sectors can be achieved and that the resulting net reduction is sufficient to mitigate the effects of climate change.

The Climate Change Act 2008 commits the government to cut CO2 levels by 80 per cent of 1990 levels in 2050. This will have to be increased to 85 per cent if the increase in aviation capacity is met, and the latter also subject to an emissions target of no greater than 2005 levels. This however would require significant improvements in fuel and operational efficiency and measures to limit demand to only 45 per cent above current levels by 2050 according to the CCC. The latter restriction appears at odds with the aim of encouraging growth in the aviation sector. It seems unlikely that the government will take active steps to limit demand at the same time as building new runways.

The general trend of high level decision making, in regards to the implications for climate change, is to ignore the very real and substantial long term risks in favour of immediate priorities. This is to some degree an understandable reaction to the pressures on governments to be seen to be taking positive, productive steps that will keep the economy going. Building the third runway is a signal to the world that, despite Brexit, Britain is an enthusiastic player in the world economy.

Yet one wonders whether this is a gamble which will fail not just in terms of meeting climate change targets, but the economic goals the move clearly favours. At a recent aviation conference it was said that in the next five years China will be building 66 new airports. The idea that Heathrow will remain a global hub simply by virtue of historical precedent and a new runway needs serious examination. Given the gamble being taken with our future prosperity – and perhaps even existence – by expanding UK airport capacity, one hopes the decision makers in government are doing just that.

Adrienne Copithorne is a partner at Richard Buxton Environmental & Public Law