Thu 23 Feb 2017 – A cross-party committee of MPs has criticised the UK government for not doing enough to show how an expanded Heathrow Airport can operate within environmental legal limits and climate targets. With London already in breach of EU air quality rules for 2017, a report by the Environmental Audit Committee says a new strategy is required to ensure that expansion is not granted at the expense of public health. It also accuses the government of providing a lack of detail on carbon emissions limits, with figures used for the costs and benefits of expansion being based, say the MPs, on a hypothetical international framework to reduce emissions that does not yet exist. They call for an independently scrutinised strategy to reduce carbon emissions from international aviation and say it is imperative the UK remains within the EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) after Brexit. Noise measures lack ambition, they argue, and if the government plans to rely on technical improvements to reduce noise impacts then it must provide the aviation industry with support.
The committee published an interim report in late 2015 following the recommendation by the Airports Commission for airport expansion in the south-east of England, since when the government has approved a third runway at Heathrow and recently published a draft Airports National Policy Statement (NPS) setting out its position (see article). However, says the committee in the introduction to its follow-up report published today: “We have seen little evidence so far of the ‘step change’ in the government’s approach to environmental mitigation which we called for in our interim report.”
The MPs are concerned that EU air quality limits may be watered down once the UK leaves the EU and call on the government to show during the NPS process how it plans to maintain or improve upon current air quality standards.
Surface access by road transport, rather than aircraft, is widely considered the main contributor to airport-related pollution and, says their report, a promise not to increase road traffic at Heathrow needs to be rigorously monitored, with clear accountability and consequences for failure. The committee noted there was no agreement between the government, local authorities and Transport for London about the costs of access improvements that would be required.
They call into question government claims that Heathrow expansion can be delivered within the UK’s climate change obligations and fear other industrial sectors will have to fill a ‘black hole’ in the 2050 UK carbon budget.
“The government has not set out what it means by ‘obligations’, let alone how it will meet them,” says the report. “It has not decided whether to accept the Committee on Climate Change’s recommendation on limiting emissions from international aviation. It would not be a credible position for the government to claim that it can deliver Heathrow expansion within emissions limits whilst rejecting independent advice as to what those limits should be and how they should be met.”
It describes the ICAO CORSIA carbon offsetting scheme as a “necessary first step” to reducing emissions from international aviation, “but it not sufficient in itself”. As it starts after the date by which the UK expects to leave the EU, the government should reconfirm its intention to participate in the global scheme from 2021, suggests the committee, and urge other major emitters, such as the United States, “to live up their commitments to participate from the earliest possible date and work towards strengthening the agreement during its review periods.”
The committee recommends the government to come up with an emissions reduction strategy for aviation. “Expanding Heathrow without drawing up such a strategy would be putting the cart before the horse.”
The committee would also like to see further clarity on how predictable respite for local communities from aircraft noise will be achieved and the specifics of a night time ban on scheduled flights, which so far commits to a 6.5 hour ban but leaves open the specific timing. The stated goal of fewer people affected by noise from Heathrow by 2030 shows a lack of ambition, they argue, and call for a comparison to be published that shows projected three and two runway noise levels in 2030 as well as with noise levels now, together with emphasis on the changing attitudes of the public to noise.
The MPs express their concern that the proposed Independent Aviation Noise Authority could become an advisory body within the UK Civil Aviation Authority and therefore an instrument of government, so preventing it from being independent or credible. Reservations were also expressed over whether a proposed Community Engagement Board, which would oversee issues such as noise insulation and compensation, would have sufficient powers.
Commenting on the report, the committee’s Chair, Mary Creagh MP said: “If the government wants to get Heathrow expansion off the ground it needs to show that a third runway can be built and run without exceeding legal limits on air pollution or breaching our carbon budgets.
“Worryingly, the government looks set to water down the limits on aviation emissions recommended by its own climate change advisors. That would mean other sectors of the economy, like energy and industry, having to cut their carbon emissions even deeper and faster.
“Mitigating the air quality, carbon and noise impacts of a new runway cannot be an afterthought. Ministers must work harder to show that Heathrow expansion can be done within the UK’s legally binding environmental commitments.”
Another committee of MPs, the Transport Select Committee, has just announced it is launching an inquiry into the draft Airports NPS. It is also currently conducting an inquiry into airspace management and modernisation.
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