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Why Heathrow’s sustainability strategy doesn’t quite cut it

Earlier this year, sustainability strategy agency, Futerra, announced it had been working with Heathrow Airport on its latest sustainability strategy, Heathrow 2.0. AEF responded to the news with its concerns, which was previously available on Futerra’s blog, and can now be read below:

We appreciate the work you’ve done in the past to highlight the challenge that aviation growth poses to climate ambition, and to show that it’s possible to cut down on flying while still connecting with people around the world and enjoying a good life. But your description of Heathrow’s latest sustainability strategy has left us wondering if we’ve read the same report as you, and your claim that Heathrow has made a “huge, bold and courageous aspiration” on climate change is baffling us.

In terms of the airport’s own emissions, we’re pleased that Heathrow wants to become, like many other airports, ‘zero carbon’. But as these emissions will account for only about 3% of the total once flights are factored in, this is obviously a bit of a sideshow that a cynic might regard as being designed to confuse hapless MPs who will soon be voting on the issue of runway expansion and who want reassurance that the ideal of sustainable growth is within reach.

Rightly, then, Heathrow also tries to cover off the issue of the emissions from departing aircraft – at least partially – with its aspiration for a ‘carbon neutral runway’. As you imply, though, this aspiration appears to have no substance beyond a kind of moral support for the UN carbon offsetting scheme for aviation, CORSIA, a scheme that applies to airlines, not airports (let alone runways), and which will be required by law. No action whatsoever is required, or proposed, from Heathrow, to deliver the scheme.

The message Heathrow seems to want to convey, of course, is that offsetting means that climate change concerns need not be a barrier to expansion. In terms of CORSIA, AEF has worked pretty doggedly over the years, partly as an active participant in discussions, for the scheme to be as effective as possible. In a global context, particularly for countries with no climate policies, we see last year’s agreement as a step towards ending the attitude of ‘aviation exceptionalism’ that you describe, but it’s not a long-term solution and certainly not a reason to think that uncontrolled growth is now OK.

In particular, CORSIA is woefully inadequate for meeting the scale of the challenge here in the UK. We’ve written a briefing, setting out the detail on this. But it’s probably quicker to check out the advice of the UK’s official experts on climate policy, the CCC, who, while remaining fiercely neutral on the question of runways, have told Government as explicitly as possible that it should not be giving approval to expansion before it has a credible plan to limit aviation emissions in line with the Climate Change Act. Offsetting, they say, has no bearing on this issue since by 2050 – the target date for the Act – we’ll need to be making emissions cuts domestically, not relying on increasingly scarce and expensive offsets. (The EU has meanwhile concluded, for similar reasons, that international credits won’t count towards its climate ambition.)

This brings us to the crux of the matter. You suggest that some ‘i’s remain to be dotted and some ‘t’s have yet to be crossed. If only that was the case. In fact, the UK has no strategy for limiting aviation emissions to a level consistent with our obligations on climate change. The CCC has persistently asked for one, as has the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), and the Government has persistently ignored them. Why? Because all the evidence shows that a new runway at Heathrow can’t be compatible with such a plan. As the EAC has recently pointed out the Government’s approach to tackling emissions while expanding Heathrow appears to be based on ‘magical thinking’.

Our primary target on this is clearly not Heathrow but the Government, but ‘Heathrow 2.0’ confuses the debate by suggesting that somehow the airport can both solve the aviation climate problem and build a new runway. If instead, Heathrow wants to make a meaningful contribution, it should start by publicly supporting the advice of the CCC that UK aviation emissions must be no higher than 37.5 Mt in 2050 without recourse to offsetting, and join the calls on Government to set out a plan – urgently – for delivering it. Without this framing, unless it’s planning to close one of its other two runways, Heathrow’s aspiration to make a third one ‘carbon neutral’ misses the point.