Heathrow expansion: Would a third runway stop UK meeting its climate change targets?

Josh Gabbatiss
Science Correspondent
Monday 25 June 2018 19:34 BST
The infection is usually contracted from small rodents in the African forest and is not easily transmitted from human to human
The infection is usually contracted from small rodents in the African forest and is not easily transmitted from human to human (Getty/iStock)

The UK has toyed with the idea of a new runway at Heathrow Airport for more than two decades, but as a vote on the proposed expansion looms, the debate surrounding it is as heated as ever.

In early June the transport secretary, Chris Grayling, announced that the cabinet had given the go-ahead to the controversial plans, and faced an immediate backlash from green campaigners and climate experts.

The government’s independent advisers on climate change expressed disappointment that the announcement contained no mention of the Paris climate agreement and aviation’s place in meeting those targets.

Ministers from across the political spectrum have voiced their anger over the planned expansion, while environmental groups described the decision as “morally reprehensible”.

  1. What are the environmental problems associated with the new runway?

    “A vote for a new Heathrow runway is a vote for more climate change, more air pollution and more noise,” said Greenpeace UK policy director Dr Doug Parr.

    “Any MP whipped into voting for this project faces a clear moral choice between sheepishly toeing the party line or protecting people from toxic air pollution and the impacts of climate change.”

    Aviation is one of the fastest growing sources of greenhouse gases, accounting for around 2 per cent of global emissions, and around 7 per cent of the UK’s. This share is set to increase in the coming years.

    Compared to other sources, the carbon cost of flying is particularly high. Flying one person from London to New York and back generates roughly the same carbon dioxide emissions as the average EU citizen does heating their home over an entire year.

    According to Friends of the Earth, an expanded Heathrow would produce as much carbon as the whole of Portugal.

    Oliver Hayes, climate campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: “Given their full possession of this knowledge, the government’s proposal to build a third runway is morally reprehensible.”

  2. Why does Chris Grayling think it is possible to expand Heathrow and still meet climate targets?

    When challenged over emissions from the new runway on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Mr Grayling said in the coming decades technology would “make a big difference” and help reduce emissions.

    In addition, the transport secretary has cited a section from the back of a 2015 report by the Airports Commission, an independent body set up to explore the country’s future airport capacity.

    “The Airports Commission came to a very clear view that we could expand Heathrow airport and still meet our climate change obligations,” he said.

    “They gave it the thumbs up, they did lots of detailed analysis on this and they said ‘yes we can do this’.”

    It is true that the report stated an additional runway “could deliver significant benefits for the UK without breaching the UK’s climate change commitments or requiring aviation emissions to exceed the planning assumption set by” the Committee on Climate Change (CCC).

  3. Given this, why are opponents so convinced the new runway is a bad idea?

    The key word in the commission’s report is “could”. It goes on to say: “Any change to UK’s aviation capacity would have to take place in the context of global climate change, and the UK’s policy obligations in this area.”

    Essentially, the chances of meeting the targets after the new runway is in place are very slim.

    In a letter addressed to Mr Grayling, Lord Deben and Baroness Brown of Cambridge from the CCC reminded the transport secretary of the essential place aviation plays in meeting the government’s targets under the Climate Change Act and the Paris climate agreement.

    The CCC stated the economy-wide target of reducing emissions by 80 per cent below 1990 levels could be achieved only if emissions from the UK aviation industry do not exceed 37.5 million tons – the level seen in 2005.

    However, a report released by the Department for Transport has already revealed that aviation emissions will hit 43 million tons by 2030 if the Heathrow expansion goes ahead.

    Even when aiming for 2005 levels, the CCC predicts other sectors would have to reduce their emissions by more than 80 per cent and described the targets as “at the upper end of what is currently expected to be deliverable”.

    “Higher levels of aviation emissions in 2050 must not be planned for, since this would place an unreasonably large burden on other sectors,” wrote the CCC representatives.

  4. What about the government’s plan to achieve ‘net zero’ emissions by 2050?

    Besides being based on highly optimistic assumptions about the rate of technological advance and emissions reductions from other sectors, expanding Heathrow also makes no allowance for the government’s current plan to introduce even tougher climate targets for 2050.

    “Net zero” – the point at which annual greenhouse gas emissions are balanced by the removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere – has been touted by experts as the only way to met the goals set by the Paris climate agreement.

  5. Beyond Heathrow, what does the future of UK air travel look like?

    The CCC said it does not have a view on the location of any future airport capacity “as long as total UK aviation emissions are compatible with meeting the 2050 climate objectives”.

    The government is currently working on its aviation strategy that will lay out its plans to make air travel greener. Other nations have set highly ambitious goals such as Norway’s target to make all shorthaul flights electric by 2040.

    Leo Murray, director of campaigning group Fellow Travellers, said that while international air travel emissions had an ambiguous place in the UK’s climate goals, the future of domestic flights is very clear.

    “If Britain moves to a net zero 2050 target to honour the Paris agreement, all domestic flights will need to end pretty much immediately,” he said.

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