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Put the No New Runway Option Back on the Table, Sir Howard Davies

Earlier this month, Sir Howard Davies, head of the Airports Commission and the main man tasked with examining the need for extra runway space in the UK, made his first public speech since consulting stakeholders in the airports debate.

Sir Howard started well; he spoke of the importance of meeting our national carbon targets, the availability of existing space for more flights, and the uncertainty of what future demand for flying will look like as strong reasons against creating more runway space. But he made the wrong conclusion that we need a new runway in the UK. Now I would like to correct him.

On climate change, Sir Howard’s message was confusing. On the one hand he emphasised how “we (the Airports Commission) are alive to the climate change problem”, while on the other Sir Howard stipulated that additional runway capacity is necessary in the UK. This runs contrary to Lord Nicholas Stern’s advice from his groundbreaking 2007 report on the economics of climate change, in which he highlighted the dangers of investing in what he calls “new carbon intensive infrastructure”. Unfortunately, a new runway is exactly that – carbon intensive infrastructure – and once the concrete sets, it will be used to the max, irrespective of the future climate impact and the availability of solutions.

Growth of the UK aviation industry and combating climate change are not mutually exclusive by any means. Indeed, as Sir Howard Davies said, passenger demand could grow by up to 60% and still allow us to meet our national carbon target of reducing emissions by 80% by 2050. Allowing such growth, however, would boost emissions from flying up to a quarter of total UK emissions and require large carbon reductions from other sectors to meet our 2050 target.

The Committee on Climate Change, the body relied on by government to advise on climate change, believes such alternative reductions are achievable. Yet should other sectors carry the burden of cutting emissions so that this one industry can continue to grow? And if a runway is built, how do we put the brakes on the aviation industry’s growth?

The second question is particularly pertinent today. If the industry grows more than 60% then further measures are needed to limit and reduce emissions than relying on improvements in technology. The main one identified is carbon trading. However, there’s now huge uncertainty there. In one fell swoop, the UN body responsible for aviation effectively nullified the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme and made only vague commitments towards a global scheme.

So there is no guarantee that aviation’s future emissions will be limited or have offsets elsewhere. This is why Sir Howard’s conclusion can be called into question. A sensible alternative is to have the no new runway option available. There is sufficient capacity in the UK’s current airports to accommodate the 60% growth of the industry that might be possible within our climate commitments. And this spare capacity is largely available in the regions where the demand arises.

Of course, many of us fly occasionally. We go on holiday, we visit friends and family or we do business, and we would like to know that we will be able to continue to do so in the future. But most of us also believe that climate change is a problem that we have to do something about. As a nation we have a carbon target that makes us a leader on climate change. If we are to meet that target, we have to remove a hell of a lot of carbon from our lifestyles. That doesn’t mean we should stop flying but allowing runway expansion now will increase the size of our future challenge.

Sir Howard Davies is aware of all of this but he made the wrong conclusion in his speech. To show that he really is “alive to the climate change problem”, Sir Howard should put the no new runway option back on the table.


This blog first appeared on Huffington Post UK and is available in its original format here.

Image credit: Landing in Barcelona by Joan Campderrós-i-Canas via Flickr