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Government delays runway decision pending more environmental analysis

11th December, 2015

The Government supports South East airport expansion but has postponed a decision on whether this should be at Heathrow or Gatwick, pending more environmental analysis. In a statement published last night the Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said: “The case for aviation expansion is clear, but it’s vitally important we get the decision right so that it will benefit generations to come. We will undertake more work on environmental impacts, including air quality, noise and carbon.” AEF’s press response is available here. While the Airport’s Commission’s recommendation in July has led to a focus on Heathrow expansion, yesterday’s announcement by Government has put Gatwick back in the frame.

The delay comes as no surprise since, as our analysis has shown and the Environmental Audit Committee recently highlighted, key environmental questions remain unanswered:

  • On carbon, the Airports Commission failed to show how UK-wide aviation emissions can be limited to a level compatible with the Climate Change Act if a new runway is built at either Heathrow or Gatwick.
  • On noise, the Commission indicated that a new runway could result in hundreds of thousands of people newly exposed to noise, and while it recommended a number of noise ‘conditions’ for expansion including a ban on scheduled flights between 11:30pm and 6:00am, it remains debatable whether these are either deliverable or sufficient to address the noise problems that a new runway would bring.
  • On air pollution, the Commission was unable to show how Heathrow can be expanded while achieving EU legal limits on nitrogen dioxide (NO2). The Commission admitted that expansion would increase NO2 levels on roads near to the airport that are forecast to be in breach of legal limits even before the runway opens.

Can the Government resolve the air pollution problem?

Air pollution impacts have been seen as a key sticking point in terms of Government approval for Heathrow expansion, given the anticipated NO2 breaches indicated by the Government’s modelling methodology. The Commission’s proposed ‘get out’ that Heathrow air quality can be allowed to worsen as long as it does not delay compliance of the London area as a whole seems wide open to legal challenge and the EAC advised Government to reject the Commission’s approach.

Subsequent to the Airports Commission’s final report, however, the Government published an updated air quality strategy, to be submitted to the European Commission by the end of the year. The plan represented the UK’s response both to a Supreme Court ruling that the UK should meet legal limits more quickly, and to the EC’s infraction proceedings against the UK for continued non-compliance, and indicates that NO2 targets will be met earlier than previously anticipated, with compliance across all of London by 2025, bringing the Heathrow area into compliance in time for a new runway opening. The Government’s statement yesterday indicated that “The Airports Commission’s air quality analysis will be tested using the latest projected future concentrations of nitrogen dioxide”.

No one has yet modelled, however, whether expansion at Heathrow could then push NO2 levels back over the limit. And it remains to be seen whether the updated plan will be acceptable to the European Commission. The reduction in anticipated NO2 arises almost entirely from more optimistic forecasts of the performance of diesel vehicles, rather than from any substantive policy action compared with the previous version. The campaigning organisation Client Earth, which brought the successful Supreme Court action, has described the draft strategy as “a series of half measures and vague ideas which constitute no plan at all”.

Irreconcilable environmental challenges?

The air quality problem at Heathrow is longstanding and, despite previous optimistic forecasts for future improvements, in fact remains as sticky as it was ten years ago – the last time the Government said it wanted to expand aviation in the South East. In the meantime, the UK has introduced climate change legislation which creates a whole new challenge in terms of compliance, as the UK is currently on course to exceed the maximum emissions level compatible with the Climate Act even without expansion, with a new runway at either Heathrow or Gatwick putting the target yet further out of reach. The Government has given itself six months to be able to prove that these problems can be tackled effectively, even while adding a new runway. We think it’s an impossible task.

Image credit: Michael Chen via Flickr