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Aviation: Don't drop Heathrow expansion now

Four and a half years elapsed between the final report of the Davies Commission recommended expanding Heathrow as the preferred means of providing additional aviation capacity in southeast England, and the House of Parliament approving the UK National Policy Statement (NPR) on airports. In mid-2018 the parlaimentary vote to support the Heathrow plan, which found 415 MPs in favour and only 119 against, was a moral victory for the aviation industry that had been campaigning for another runway. The UK Department for Transport (DfT) officially supports Heathrow expansion at present, claiming it will "provide a massive economic boost to businesses and communities... at no cost to the taxpayer and within our environmental obligations."

Is Heathrow expansion about to become a casualty of net zero emissions policy? (Heathrow Airport)

The parliamentary vote and DfT support are not, of course, the end of the matter but they were positive steps on the road after decades of political dithering. Since then though, the momentum behind Heathrow expansion has grown and the first of what is likely to be many High Court challenges has been overcome.

Net zero

At the beginning of May 2019, MPs supported a parliamentary motion declaring the UK is facing a 'climate emergency'. At the same time, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) recommended that government take steps to make the country 'net zero' for carbon emissions by 2050. Net zero does not mean no emissions, but requires mitigation measures equal to the carbon produced be put in place, usually accomplished by collecting carbon dioxide that is produced and planting trees. Under previous CCC proposals 80% of the country's carbon emissions would have been mitigated by 2050, but net zero increases the target to 100%.

The Government has admitted that if the motion and recommendations are adopted as official policy, growth in aviation might have to be restricted. A senior civil servant has gone further and told green campaigners that the country's aviation strategy might have to be reviewed and taken back to parliament. DfT head of aviation Caroline Law told campaign group Plan B that "it may be necessary to consider the CCC’s recommended policy approach for aviation.”

If aviation growth is to be throttled back in the name of carbon reduction, an obvious - and potentially soft - target is the expansion of Heathrow, which is the next big project on the agenda. Changing the NPR and denying the development of Heathrow could become a major component in government claims it is doing all it can to meet the CCC's proposals. It would also be a major victory for environmental campaigners who use aviation as an easy whipping boy.

Industry action

The question is: why do we need government intervention to cut aviation emissions? And the answer to that question is: we don't.

The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) has working to get countries to commit to aviation carbon reduction plans for some time. To date, 111 states representing 93.7% of the industry's activity, have signed up. The plans involve airport improvements, regulatory changes, more efficient operations, alternative fuels and improvements to aircraft technology. The industry's trade body has developed CORSIA (Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation) which aims to cut emissions from aviation by 50% by 2050. The remaining 50% of aviation emissions will mitigated through offsetting. The initial phases of the scheme run until 2026 and are voluntary. The following steps through to 2035 apply to all countries that produce more than 0.5% of aviation's emissions.


It is laudable that individual governments take action to reduce emissions, as long as the changes are multilateral. Becoming carbon neutral is expensive to the point of being economically damaging, and every country must share the pain. Equally, net zero should not just be about restricting specific industries such as aviation. All polluters must play a part including the worse offenders, domestic energy consumption and agriculture. Cutting emissions must also be based around funding, developing and growing alternative sources of energy such as bio-fuel and nuclear (which has been a source of contention).

At the moment there is no sign of some of the world's most polluting countries signing up to net zero programs, nor of other industries taking aggressive approaches to cutting emissions. Since the Davies Commission recommended on UK airports, the government has announced plans to triple spending on UK roads to £15bn in 2014, and to spend £6.1bn as part of a £23bn scheme in 2017. The expenditure was justified as a means of shortening journey times, increasing capacity and reducing congestion. Well guess what: Heathrow's third runway will do just the same for airline passengers. And yet aviation is coming under threat while there is no talk of corresponding restricting road transport, despite road transport producing more emissions than aviation (17.5% versus 2% of all emissions, or 74% versus 12% of transport emissions).

With Brexit looming the UK needs aviation more than ever. The industry is already planning and preparing for its role in carbon reduction through programs such as CORSIA. The targets it has set will not change if a third runway is constructed at Heathrow - the industry is committed cutting its emissions by 50% by 2050 whether there are two or three runways to the west of London. Aviation is highly visible - maybe even easy - target despite it being neither the only culprit nor the biggest polluter. But aviation is already prepared to do its bit to mitigate climate change.

Thankfully the UK Government has not rescinded its support for the development of Heathrow; not yet anyway. Restricting the growth of aviation is not the right answer. The most appropriate course of action is to hold the aviation industry to the commitments it has already made through programs like CORSIA, to insist other polluters develop similar schemes, and to lobby for countries that have not made plans to reduce emissions to join the process.

Text © The Aviation Oracle

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