Analysis: Heathrow expansion – confronting the elephant in the room


An Emirates flight prepares to touch down at Heathrow. Photo credit: Roy via Flickr.
By Anders Lorenzen
The UK airport commission last week released a long-awaited report, in which they recommended that Heathrow Airport should have a third runway.
Heathrow is the UK’s biggest airport, and the case for expansion argues that the airport has reached maximum capacity, and to compete with the rest of the world expansion is necessary.
Though against this view are many. Apart from local residents (whose homes would be threatened) and environmental groups and environmentalists, the list includes high-profile Conservative MP’s. The most vocal opposition in the governing party is London Mayor, Boris Johnson, and the MP Zack Goldsmith who is running for Mayor next year. The latter has gone as far as to threaten that if the government goes ahead he would resign and trigger a by-election. So far, Prime Minister David Cameron has not wanted to comment on the report, citing legal concerns. When he came to power in 2010 he made an election pledge that he would not expand Heathrow. But prior to winning his second term (he took office 8th of May this year), he made no such promises.
But both the Conservative Party and the opposition, the Labour Party, agree that airport expansion has to happen – clashing with the views of green groups and environmentalists. The other airport candidate for expansion is UK’s second biggest at Gatwick, which supporters say it would be a much cleaner alternative. The green argument is that to comply with climate change targets we can’t afford to expand our airport capacity.
But can we afford to expand any of our airports while taking climate change seriously?  Below, I will look at airports and climate change and the global acceleration of air travel.
Air travel and climate change
Air travel has much increased in the last decade and will continue to do so, and there are reasons to be worried. It has long been stated that emissions from air travel are low, in comparison with other forms of transport in terms of energy usage, heating, industry, deforestation etc.. While these are still credible arguments, they become outdated with increasing air travel and increasing emissions, as people in the developing world come out of poverty and also want to fly. New airports are being built on a massive scale in China, India and so on. Even in the western world, we fly more and more. In Europe, the rise of budget airlines means that it is cheaper to fly than ever .
Flying is now so cheap in the UK that quite often it makes better financial sense to take domestic flights rather than taking trains, which has contributed to capacity problems and pressure on UK’s airports.
The solution
So what to do about it?  Several ideas have been suggested. Whichever way you look at it, it’s hard to ignore a tax on airlines and travellers. The idea of a frequent flyer tax has been suggested – but might not prove popular. A passenger would get one tax-free flight a year – but after that, the more you fly the more tax you would pay. Next time you fly, look at your ticket and see how much you pay in tax – this is the amount that would increase.
Travellers might be open to the idea of taxing airlines – although that would be reflected in what you pay too. The EU’s Emission Trade Scheme (ETS) has so far been exempt for airlines. Though former EU Commissioner Connie Hedegaard tried to introduce it , it was strongly opposed by Hillary Clinton, the then U.S. Secretary of State. Since then, the EU has been quiet on that front, and there has been no recent discussion in the UK.
The reality is that both ideas are problematic in today’s political environment.  Airlines and business would be up in arms, and any politician would risk being labelled anti-business.
Can air travel be green?
So if we fail to reduce the number of people flying, can’t we just make air travel low carbon? This is trickier that it seems. For all our advance in electric engines for cars, trucks, buses and trains, it just isn`t yet possible with today’s technology to do this with air travel. Though you may have seen the Solar Impulse flight travelling the world on solar power and using energy storage, we’re nowhere near being able to use that technology for commercial flying, and maybe it will never be possible.
The best chance to make aeroplanes go low carbon is to use biofuels, but then again biofuels have their own environmental issues. The entrepreneur and founder of Virgin Airlines, Richard Branson, is working hard to come up with a sustainable biofuel. In a recent lecture given at the London School of Economics, the climate economist, Sir Nicholas Stern, said we should deploy all the world´s available biofuels to air travel, as it can never be electrified.
It’s, of course, an area where millions of dollars are spent on R&D, lead by Branson and Virgin, and one sincerely hopes that a solution will be found.
But until that happens, taxing airlines seems the most obvious way to limit emissions. If a mixture of tax systems and market forces can make train travel cheaper than airline travel, at least in Europe, a monumental shift could happen. Not only could domestic flying in the UK become a thing of the past, we could also prefer to take trains rather than aeroplanes to different European destinations. Train travel would have to be at least as cost-effective as flying, and a massive investment on a cross-European scale would be needed to make trains more efficient.
For now, a big battle over the Heathrow expansion looms ahead. So far, the arguments have been based on air pollution, business and local citizen opposition. Green groups and environmentalists will have to work hard to focus the debate where they think it should be; on climate change.


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