In May 2010, it was announced that the recently-formed Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government had cancelled plans for a third runway at Heathrow. George Monbiot called it “the biggest victory for the environment movement since the scrapping of the last Tory government’s road-building programme.” and the BBC report claimed that “It was always common ground between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats to oppose the third runway.”
How things have changed. Like the zombie road schemes that refuse to stay dead, the 3rd runway has risen from the grave to threaten the land of the living yet again. Despite his famous claim, from before he came to power, “The third runway at Heathrow is not going ahead, no ifs, no buts”, former prime minister David Cameron is at least partly responsible for the recent resurrection. After all, it was his government who set up the airports commission to report back once the 2015 general election was out of the way. His so-called ‘greenest ever’ government has therefore put one the most environmentally damaging proposals devised in recent times back on the agenda. If the Tories with this abysmal record are genuinely the greenest government ever then it is no surprise we are in the colossal mess we are in; because the previous governments must have been even worse than abysmal.
Theresa May, apparently, was also once opposed to Heathrow. Does becoming Prime Minister magically blind people to the unthinkable environmental consequences of a new runway? Her promise “to build a Britain not driven by the interests of a privileged few” now sounds terribly hollow too, since 70% of all flights are taken by people earning over £155,000 per year, against an average UK salary of £26,500. Even airline pilots apparently earn less (£78,482) than most of their passengers.
The extra runway is certainly a serious threat to the climate; in 2005 it was estimated that aviation CO2 emissions alone made up around 6.3% of UK emissions. It seems likely that UK emissions will need to be cut by more than that every year to meet our targets, and that 6.3 figure doesn’t capture the full extent of aviation’s climate impact (although nobody seems able to agree on the extent to which emitting various greenhouse gasses at attitude effects the climate, it is generally considered to be significantly worse than ground-level emissions of CO2 alone). That was without the third runway, with it aviation could account for two thirds of the UK’s entire carbon budget, what would other sectors have to do to cut enough emissions to free up enough carbon budget to ‘fund’ the aviation industry?
While Heathrow is pretty much full, many other UK airports have spare capacity. This suggests to me that Heathrow is where airlines and/or passengers want to fly to and from. Looking at it that way, there may be an argument for the third runway, but to be reconcilable with the need to curb emissions you would have to remove flights from other airports to provide the carbon ‘funding’ for Heathrow’s extra flights. Monbiot’s latest article on the topic at the time of writing states that the airports commission justified expansion via either bigger emissions cuts in other sectors (no thanks, the challenge is big enough as it is thank you) or a carbon tax to price the lower-margin routes out of existence (which as I see it is equivalent to my suggestion of cutting back flights at other airports).
BBC news, 2010
No ifs, no buts
Theresa May U-Turn (Green party, 2016)
impact of flying on the environment, Guardian 2010
frequent flyer earnings
Mirror 2015, average UK salary
two thirds of the carbon budget, The Ecologist, 2016