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How can Heathrow add 50% more flights without impacting the UK’s ability to meet carbon targets?

25th July, 2019

Adapted from an AEF presentation by Cait Hewitt to Richmond community meeting on 23rd July about Heathrow’s expansion proposals

AEF is opposed to a new runway at Heathrow or anywhere else in the UK, and has given expert evidence in support of the Friends of the Earth legal challenge to the scheme (which, on 22nd July, was given permission to go to the Court of Appeal, as were the other challenges). Heathrow is already the biggest source of CO2 emissions in the UK, it’s planning to get 50% bigger, and yet it argues in its latest consultation that expansion will not materially impact the UK’s ability to meet its climate change targets. How can this be?

Is it because Heathrow’s only looked at emissions from the airport infrastructure? It’s certainly true that they talk a lot about low carbon building design and energy efficient lighting. But they also note that 94% of the emissions from the expansion will be from aircraft.

Is it then because they believe that those aircraft will be low-emission planes? Well – no – for all their talk about incentives for the UK’s first electric aircraft, Heathrow actually predicts that the airport will emit more CO2 per runway by 2035 with three runways than it would with two. This graph is taken from Heathrow’s consultation materials and suggests that the third runway will add an extra 8-9 Mt CO2 per year compared with a baseline, no expansion-scenario.

Is it then because Heathrow thinks other airports will stop growing in order to cut Heathrow some slack? Surely not, after all the time it spent arguing that a third runway would benefit the whole of the UK.

Is it because airlines will in future have to offset emission increases above their 2020 level under a UN scheme? Not primarily. It seemed Heathrow’s trump card was going to be to claim emissions wouldn’t increase on a net basis because airlines using the airport would be paying for some emissions reductions elsewhere in the world.

But it turns out to be much more simple. The reason why Heathrow says a third runway won’t impact the UK’s ability to achieve its carbon targets is because Heathrow doesn’t think those targets apply to aviation. So when John Holland Kaye signed up, as Heathrow CEO, to an alliance of business leaders pushing for net zero emissions he did so on the understanding that that target won’t apply for any international air traffic operating out of his airport. Airline emissions can carry on growing (while the airport invests in a bit of peatland restoration in Lancashire).

The only way that we can see for Heathrow to operate a third runway without increasing emissions is by closing one of its other two runways.

We encourage the public to engage with Heathrow’s consultation and to push hard for the best possible deal in terms of limiting the local impacts, especially noise. But we’re also saying: please talk to your MPs and others about why the third runway should not be built. Because it’s not too late to be stopped.

Heathrow’s consultation is open until 13th September 2019 and can be accessed here