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New AEF briefing: Why Heathrow can’t solve its carbon problem (and the trouble with offsets)

26th March, 2019

Earlier this month the Government’s Spring Statement announced plans to consult on whether airlines (and other travel providers) should be required to offer passengers the opportunity to voluntarily offset their carbon emissions, claiming this would give people the option of “zero carbon travel”. On a day when the Government was defending itself in court against claims that its plans for expansion at Heathrow unlawfully fail to account for climate change, the announcement seemed tokenistic. Voluntary offsetting, even when offered by airlines, has a very low take-up rate, and its role in delivering the shift needed to a zero carbon economy is in any case questionable. 

Heathrow Airport, meanwhile, is working on the assumption that the third runway is going ahead, and in December last year published a “Carbon neutral growth roadmap”. The airport’s idea of a carbon neutral runway, when it was floated last year, was hailed by some prominent environmentalists as demonstrating real forward thinking, and Ed Gillespie, writing for sustainability consultancy Futerra, described it as “a huge, bold and courageous aspiration”. Publication of the roadmap may, in fact, be more a question of expediency. If the third runway plans survive legal challenge, Heathrow, as the developer, will need to be able to demonstrate that the project will not have a “material impact” on the Government’s ability to meet its climate change commitments. 

In fact, however, Heathrow’s carbon neutral growth roadmap does little more than recycle existing – inadequate – measures to limit aviation emissions. Our new briefing, “Why Heathrow can’t solve its carbon problem” sets out why the plan falls short.