Concerns over aviation noise and emissions should not stop airport expansion around London, says ITC report
Fri 11 Mar 2016 – A report commissioned by UK think tank Independent Transport Commission (ITC) has found technological and operational improvements, coupled with market-based mechanisms, will mitigate future increases in noise, CO2 and NOx emissions, and overcome sustainability challenges. The analysis by consultants RDC Aviation suggests that over the coming decades a range of solutions will enable forecasts of future growth to be delivered “within acceptable environmental boundaries”, even without step changes in technology. ITC concludes this justifies airport expansion at either Heathrow or Gatwick to provide extra capacity and enhanced air transport connectivity. Heathrow, unsurprisingly, welcomed the report while Gatwick said the UK government was right to look again at environmental concerns over air pollution. Campaign group Aviation Environment Federation (AEF) said the report had made implausible assumptions on technology developments.
The report examined a wide range of sources relating to noise, CO2 emissions and air pollutants that arise from British aviation operations and finds that rapid improvement in technology and operation measures to mitigate them over the past 30 years is likely to continue.
“Having reviewed these important sustainability issues in-depth, it is clear that the environmental challenges of limiting the carbon emissions, noise and local air quality impacts can be tackled,” said Dr Stephen Hickey, Chair of ITC’s aviation working group and ITC Commissioner. “The findings suggest that noise and local air quality impacts can be managed downwards given the right mix of operational, policy and technological development, while incremental improvements in carbon emission output are being delivered on an annual basis.”
The report says there was a technology implementation gap from the late 1980s until recent times, during which there was almost no completely new airframe development, other than the Boeing 777 in 1995 and then the Airbus A380 in 2005. Consequently, much of today’s aircraft fleet, particularly in the long-haul segment, is operating legacy equipment with airframes and engines designed in the 1980s and 1990s. However, the very recent introduction of new-technology aircraft such as the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350 will quickly proliferate the global fleet and deliver quantifiable improvements in noise and emissions reductions, it argues.
The rate of technology uptake is critical to the sustainability of the aviation industry, say the report’s authors. Although there are savings to be made from operating new aircraft, there are benefits to be realised from retaining older and cheaper inefficient models, particularly in times of low fuel prices. They suggest changes to regulations regarding the operating lives of aircraft to encourage new aircraft investment could aid sustainability.
Using its extensive database, coupled with technology cycle forecasts, RDC has provided a forecast of fuel consumption up to 2050. It suggests the rate of fuel burn improvements by technology implementation should be a fairly constant average of around 1.6% per year, meaning that 45% less fuel would be burnt per seat hour by 2050. While this is a substantial rate of consistent improvement, when put in the context of rising demand for aviation, particularly from developing countries, the total fuel burn from global aviation would still be expected to increase at a rate of around 2.5% per year, says the report. This, however, does not take into account other changes and improvements from operational efficiencies and alternative fuels.
RDC analysis claims the average aircraft will burn 15% less fuel, and therefore CO2 emissions, by 2030 and be around 4dB quieter, with the trend continuing well after that date. These improvements could potentially be fast-tracked and increased with the use of policy measures to incentivise fleet renewal, say the authors. They also support the creation of an independent noise authority with powers to research and recommend best practice, monitor performance and fine operators for breaching agreed targets.
Using noise data from the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) for current aircraft, supplemented by industry predictions for new aircraft types and extrapolating trends for aircraft as-yet unplanned, the report forecasts the current generation of aircraft will reduce the average approach noise by around 5dB by 2035. The technology that will come on line after that could take the reduction as far as 8dB below current levels by 2050, suggests the report.
The report maintains the contribution of NOx and particulate emissions to poor air quality surrounding airports is caused principally by surface transport, and as the issue transcends the aviation industry, it requires separate measures from government to alter land-based travel patterns, such as a modal shift from car use to public transport. In order for any new airport capacity around London to be delivered sustainably, it needs to be developed in the context of the wider transport network and not as a standalone project, says the report.
“Whether the UK government pursues the proposal to expand Gatwick or Heathrow, the ITC research demonstrates that sustainability concerns should not stop the UK realising the great additional benefits that increased connectivity can provide,” said Hickey.
“Building public confidence and trust is essential. By arming an independent regulator with powers to monitor and control sensitive issues such as noise, the government could play its part in delivering improvements for those affected by airport operations once a decision is made.”
Having postponed a decision on expansion pending more analysis of environmental concerns, particularly over air pollution, the government is due to deliver its verdict in the second half of this year. Although the government has indicated a need for extra capacity by 2030, it has not yet taken up the Airport Commission’s recommendation of a third runway at Heathrow and has left open Gatwick as a possible preferred choice, should it decide to proceed at all.
Commenting on the report, a Gatwick Airport spokesperson said road pollution in London had been predicted to fall but instead had got worse and had stopped planned airport expansion in 2009. As Heathrow’s air quality “remains illegal”, he said, “Gatwick expansion is the only solution that balances the economy and the environment.”
ITC’s preferred choice would be to expand Heathrow on the grounds that the UK’s global connectivity would be most significantly enhanced by improving capacity at a primary hub airport. Its report finds that due to the use of larger aircraft, hub operations emit up to 24% fewer carbon emissions than if that same connectivity was provided through point-to-point services, although there was a trade-off in that noise was more widely dispersed under a point-to-point model.
Not surprisingly, Heathrow welcomed the report, in particular its assertion that road vehicles were the principal contributors of air pollution. The airport said data gathered by air quality monitors around Heathrow showed annual breaches of EU limits in two locations beside major road junctions, yet airport-related emissions contributed less than 16% to the total. New public transport infrastructure would treble Heathrow’s rail capacity by 2040 and enable 30 million more passengers to use public transport, it promised.
However, the report came in for criticism from AEF, which said in an analysis posted on its website that it had made implausible assumptions on technology development to cut carbon emissions, failed to acknowledge the scale and nature of the noise problem, and dismissed air pollution concerns.
“Without clearer definitions of what constitutes “acceptable environmental boundaries”, and evidence that these can be achieved, the report’s conclusion that environmental impacts should be no barrier to expansion is unfounded,” said AEF.