Allowing Heathrow to expand will create “a serious obstacle” to meeting the UK’s commitments on climate change and reducing air pollution, a leading scientist has warned.
Environmental groups expressed dismay at the Government’s decision to give a third runway at the airport the go-ahead – and Greenpeace vowed to challenge it in the courts.
Activists also signalled they would launch a campaign of direct action by locking themselves together on a mock runway outside the Westminster Parliament.
The Government said it believed a new runway at Heathrow could be created while still meeting the UK’s “obligations” to cut carbon emissions.
But an analysis of official figures by the Carbon Brief website found that the rising demand for flights could mean aviation could emit up to two-thirds of the maximum amount of greenhouse gases that the whole of the UK can produce by 2050 if it is to stick to its commitments on climate change.
This would mean drastic cuts in emissions produced by other sources, particularly from power stations, transport and heating systems. One expert who backed the decision to expand Heathrow rather than Gatwick, said other sectors of the economy would have to reduce greenhouse gases by more than 80 per cent by 2050 to comply with the UK Climate Change Act.
But Professor Joanna Haigh, co-director of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment, said she thought the Government had made a mistake.
“Expansion at Heathrow, or any other airport, will create a serious obstacle to the UK meeting its greenhouse gas and air quality targets,” she said.
“Increased flights, more traffic on roads in and around the airports, and emissions from the new construction will add to an already woeful situation, particularly in London and the South East of England.
“While I appreciate that current business projections suggest the need for more flights, by the time new runways are operating, they could look seriously outdated.
“Rolling out of the best quality telecommunications networks to all businesses, including fast and reliable internet on trains, could benefit business productivity whilst reducing pollution by greenhouse gases and particles.”
She said the Government should have supported research into green alternatives to existing transport systems.
“Instead of expanding airports, I feel it would be better to redirect funds to accelerate research and development in clean transport and telecommunications and to prioritise the UK’s responsibilities to air quality and environmental health,” Professor Haigh said.
Dr Marc Stettler, of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Imperial College London, said Heathrow was in a better location to serve the “growing demand for air travel” than Gatwick.
“It has better transport links to and from the rest of the UK and it currently offers a larger variety of long-haul destinations that will be important in a post-Brexit Britain,” he said.
If the number of flights was going to increase, Dr Stettler said cuts in greenhouse gases would have to be made elsewhere.
“In terms of climate change, growth in aviation will mean that other sectors of our economy will have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 80 per cent by 2050 to meet the Climate Change Act,” he said.
“This reiterates the need for an integrated national transport strategy that balances a growth in aviation with reductions in emissions from other forms of transport.”
Greenpeace launched an appeal for funds to help pay for a judicial review of the decision.
John Sauven, Greenpeace UK's executive director, said: “A third runway at Heathrow would be a waste of time, money and lives.
“It would make Londoners’ air more dangerous to breathe, contributing to an air pollution crisis that already kills thousands. And it would load the atmosphere with as much extra carbon as some entire countries pump out.
“We stand ready to take the May government to court on this, side by side with Conservative west London councils. This runway has been defeated before and can be defeated again.”
In its statement about the decision, the Government said: “Today’s announcement follows an unprecedented UN global agreement achieved earlier this month to combat aviation emissions.
“Under the deal, airlines will offset their emissions with reductions from other sectors to deliver carbon neutral growth for the aviation sector from 2020. The Government believes that a new runway at Heathrow can be delivered within the UK’s carbon obligations.”
However Dr Doug Parr, Greenpeace UK’s chief scientist, tweeted: “Government believes new runway at Heathrow can be delivered within UK carbon obligations. Nobody who understands thinks so.”
Activist groups vowed to continue the fight against the third runway.
Stephanie Nicholls, of Reclaim the Power, said: “We can honour our commitments to tackle climate change, or we can build new runways – we can’t do both.
“Aviation expansion anywhere is irresponsible, and globally will impact the most on the people who’ve done least to cause the problem. Climate change is already hitting poorer communities in the global south, who are the least likely to ever set foot on a plane.
“When the Government won’t follow its own rules, it’s time for normal people to step up and take action.
“Following today’s announcement climate activists, council leaders and local residents will be standing together to make any new runways undeliverable. If the Government thinks they can override local opinion, climate science and their own commitments, they’ve got another thing coming.”
Shona Kealey, a spokesperson for Plane Stupid, said: “Two weeks ago, enough countries agreed to ratify the Paris Agreement for it to come into force. Last week, the Government’s climate advisers issued a report saying reducing aviation emissions should be a priority if we’re going to honour the Climate Change Act.
“And now, with today’s announcement, our Government proclaims to the world that we’re a dishonest and unreliable nation who can’t be trusted to keep to our international agreements or even follow our own laws, just as we’re about to renegotiate trade agreements with the whole world.”
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