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Heathrow announces new plans for a third runway

Heathrow’s proposals for consideration by the Airports Commission for a third runway have been published today, setting out 3 separate sets of plans for a runway to the North, North West or South West of the airport. But the airport’s case rests on a series of half truths and promises not backed by evidence.

The airport claims that the expansion would be consistent with EU and UK climate change commitments. But its case rests on a speculative ‘CO2 road map’ drawn up by the aviation industry itself and assuming far more optimistic progress on biofuels and aircraft technology than official forecasts. Forecasts from the Department for Transport show that even without constructing new runways, aviation emissions are set to exceed the level that independent advisers the Committee on Climate Change(CCC) have declared to be compatible with the Climate Change Act.

While the roadmap from the industry organisation Sustainable Aviation promises a 0% increase in emissions despite a doubling in passenger numbers, the CCC recently highlighted to the Airports Commission that its own assessment of the likely emission reductions in the sector is less optimistic and would require passenger numbers to be constrained at no more than 60% growth over their 2005 levels. Government forecasts are that even without any new runways, growth in passengers will exceed this level; the number is currently set to grow by 93% by 2050, given the available capacity at airports such as Gatwick, Stansted, and regional airports outside the South East.

On noise, Heathrow’s proposals suggest that the number of people affected will fall over time, even with a new runway. But their analysis is based on the number of people in the 57 Leq noise contour, a measure that has been widely discredited as a marker of the point at which community annoyance sets in. Even with 2 runways, Heathrow scores worst of any UK airport under a range of noise metrics being considered by the Airports Commission, and more people are affected by noise from Heathrow than from any other European airport.

In relation to air pollution, the airport’s claims that even with a third runway it can bring Heathrow’s emissions to within legal limits are undermined by evidence from the past decade that anticipated improvements, particularly from road vehicles which are responsible for a large proportion of emissions in the Heathrow area, have failed to materialise. As a result the area around Heathrow, alongside some parts of central London, remains in breach of EU air pollution laws, leaving open the possibility of heavy fines imposed by Europe. The UK Supreme Court recently ruled that the Government had failed in its legal duty to protect people from the harmful effects of air pollution.

Finally, Heathrow makes the argument that more flights are needed to boost economic growth and trade with emerging economies. But research from the independent consultancy CE Delft published earlier this year found that for developed economies, any correlation between the amount of flying and economic activity is a result of increased demand for air travel, rather than there being any increase in trade as a result of laying on either additional flights, or flights to new locations, including emerging economies. While it clearly benefits Heathrow for travellers to use it as a hub to travel on to other destinations, there is no obvious benefit to UK businesses in hubbing via Heathrow rather than an alternative airport in Europe.

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