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Delivering sustainable airports needs real ambition and that’s before we even consider a new runway

15th October, 2014

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Today (14/10/14), London First’s campaign for a new runway, Let Britain Fly, hosted a ‘Sustainable Airports Summit’, and publicised a statement – ‘Delivering Sustainable Airports’ – which has been signed by a wide range of stakeholders, both for and against a new runway, and will be sent to the Secretary of State for Transport.

Many of the suggestions in the statement are easy for groups from all sides to support, from the industry to community groups. Few organisations would oppose increasing public transport to airports or limiting CO2 from aircraft, for example, while calls for an independent noise body have been made before. However, if all the proposed measures were implemented, positive though they may be, would they deliver sustainable airports?

The answer is no and that is one of the reasons we decided not to sign the statement. The reality is that airports have major environmental impacts that the proposals in today’s statement wouldn’t even begin to account for. The proposals also make addressing the challenges facing airports today look a little too simplistic.

For example, the reason why the area around Heathrow has breached legal limits for NO2 over the past ten years relates to a combination of emissions from cars and trucks accessing the airport, aircraft emissions, non-airport traffic on the M25 and M4 and background levels of air pollution in Greater London. Increasing public transport use and deterring some car usage through a new congestion charge would be helpful, but it’s wishful thinking to suggest that these kinds of measures would be sufficient to tackle this intractable problem any time soon.

The other reason why we didn’t sign the statement is that it fails to address the critical question in relation to airports in the South East, namely whether or not the call for sustainable airports can be delivered if a new runway is built. Bringing London and the South East into line with air pollution law and keeping aviation emissions to a level consistent with the Climate Change Act will be hard enough with the airports we have. With a new runway the scale of the challenge escalates to another level.

A third runway at Heathrow could, for example, raise the number of people affected by aircraft noise in London above a million according to the Mayor of London’s office. Any expansion would undermine efforts by the Government and local authorities to bring air pollution in Greater London back down to legal limits – something that Defra predicts will be achieved only by 2030 even without considering an additional runway. Keeping CO2 emissions to a sustainable level would require either eye-watering carbon taxes or widespread and stringent caps on other airports, including those in the regions, which already have capacity to expand passenger numbers.

Let Britain Fly and London First have got it right in that something needs to be done to tackle aircraft noise, air pollution and CO2 emissions from aircraft today. And they are correct that efforts are needed from all stakeholders to address the issues. But the measures they are proposing fall a long way short of what’s needed to tackle today’s challenges for airports. So let’s get them right before we even begin to think about any new runways.