Divided UK Government finally agrees to Heathrow expansion but with environmental strings attached
Transport Secretary Geoff Hoon announces UK Government approval for third runway at Heathrow
Fri 16 Jan 2009 – After an intense, lengthy and acrimonious national debate, the UK Government finally gave its approval for the construction of a third runway and sixth terminal at London’s Heathrow Airport. Despite a rejection of the proposal to introduce ‘mixed-mode’ operations that would have allowed simultaneous landings and take-offs on the same two existing runways, along with stricter environmental targets for the airport, the decision has been greeted with relief by the aviation industry and business leaders. They may have won the battle but the war is not over as the opposition political parties, local councils and residents, London’s Mayor and environmentalists pledge to fight on in their efforts to stop the airport’s expansion.
Opposition to the £9 billion ($13bn) expansion also came from within the Government’s own ranks with many of its own MPs and ministers from the environment and climate change departments against, leaving transport and business ministers to push the case. In the end, Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who had always supported the plan on economic grounds, won the day by promising tougher environmental conditions be attached. “It is always our desire to make sure that we protect the economic future of the country while at the same time meeting the very tough environmental conditions that we have set ourselves for noise and pollution and for climate change,” he said at a Berlin press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
In concessions to the dissenting ministers, there will be an initial cap on the number of extra flights to about half of the original proposal, allowing 125,000 a year rather than the 222,000 planned. In addition, the new runway – which is unlikely to be in operation before 2019 or 2020 – will be restricted under a ‘green slot’ principle to new-technology cleaner and quieter aircraft which will have to meet compulsory minimum emission standards on CO2, noise and NOx. Although this standard was not spelt out, there is speculation that they could follow the aviation industry’s own ACARE targets which pledge to cut CO2 and noise emissions by 50% by 2020 compared to equivalent aircraft in 2000, and NOx emissions by 80%.
Climate change minister Ed Miliband is also said to have secured a guarantee that aviation carbon emissions would fall to 2005 levels by 2050. Miliband recently committed the UK to an ambitious 80% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050 and feared the Heathrow expansion would blow a hole in his ‘carbon budget’.
Sustainable Aviation, a UK aviation industry environmental strategy initiative, submitted a report last month that emissions can return to 2000 levels by 2050 after peaking around 2020 (see story) as a result of new aircraft technology, improved air traffic management efficiencies and alternative jet fuels.
Another green ‘sweetener’ is a promise by the Government to look into the feasilibity – not a firm commitment – of constructing a high-speed rail hub at Heathrow that would connect with Scotland and other national rail links, with onward services to Europe through central London. However, even if the plan went ahead, it is unlikely the hub would be opened before 2027.
A controversial aspect of the expansion proposal was over the issue of local air quality at Heathrow and the Government admits that EU limits on nitrogen dioxide levels at Heathrow have already been breached but says it will apply for an extension to 2015 on regulations that are due to come into force in 2010. It is claimed that 75% of the levels is due to road traffic using the motorways around Heathrow and the Government believes technology improvements in car and lorry transportation will mitigate the problem by the time the new runway is opened.
The Government has also committed that the 57 decibel noise contour will not be enlarged as a result of the increase in traffic, again through the promise of new-generation aircraft technology.
In his announcement of the decision to the House of Commons, Transport Secretary Geoff Hoon said the three conditions – noise, air quality and surface access – set out in the 2003 Government White Paper for supporting a third runway at Heathrow could be met.
Environmental groups have been less than impressed with the Government’s guarantees on meeting carbon, noise and air quality targets.
“This new runway cannot and will not be built. If it’s a green light it will shred the last vestiges of Brown's environmental credibility. An expanded Heathrow would become the single biggest emitter of CO2 in Britain,” commented John Sauven, Executive Director of Greenpeace ahead of the predicted announcement. Greenpeace last week purchased a plot of land on the proposed site of the airport runway in a well-publicized attempt to delay the planning process.
“Expanding Heathrow is a hammer blow for UK climate targets that will shatter Gordon Brown's international reputation on the environment,” said Friends of the Earth’s Executive Director, Andy Atkins. “We desperately need inspirational green leadership in the run-up to crucial UN climate talks later this year – not more polluting Brown policies. Talk of ‘green slots’, clean aircraft and long term targets for cutting emissions will not prevent soaring emissions. The best way for the Government to tackle air travel’s contribution to global climate change is to abandon plans to expand UK airports. This terrible decision will intensify opposition to the Government’s aviation strategy - the battle against Heathrow expansion can still be won.”
Jeff Gazzard, Aviation Environment Federation Board Member, said that claims that Heathrow is full today and that London and the UK are in danger of missing out to other European airports were “completely bogus”.
John Stewart, Chair of HACAN Clearskies, a lobbying group which campaigns on behalf of residents living under Heathrow's flight paths, said: “We believe we have won the environmental, social and economic arguments against expansion. There will be fury at this decision which flies in the face of the facts. But it will mean that campaigners will re-double their efforts to stop expansion.
“People will fight the Government in the courts, in their communities, in the town halls and, if necessary, on the tarmac of Heathrow Airport. All the warm words in the world about high-speed rail and environmental safeguards will not hide the fact that the Government has decided to give the green light to expansion.”
The aviation industry, unsurprisingly, welcomed the Government’s decision. “This is the right decision for Britain. It is a clear message that we are investing in our infrastructure and will give confidence to overseas investors that we are not going to allow Heathrow to slip behind the competition,” said Lord Soley of industry campaign group Future Heathrow, a coalition of business, trades unions and the aviation community.
“It is only right that environmental issues are considered but it is also important to balance these concerns with the needs of a modern economy. Future Heathrow believes the measures set out by Government today will prove effective in managing the environmental impact of growth at Heathrow.”
Giovanni Bisignani, Director General and CEO of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), said: “The UK Government made the right decision. The third runway allows Heathrow to grow, and, more importantly, it will be an enormous economic catalyst by better connecting the London and UK economies to global business.
“Growth must be environmentally responsible. The environmental restrictions on the third runway are challenging ... [but] I am confident that the environmental impact of the third runway can be managed effectively.”
“The lack of runway and terminal capacity at Heathrow has steadily increased congestion and delays,” said Mike Carrivick, Chief Executive of Board of Airline Representatives in the UK (BAR UK). “Aircraft waiting to land are often held in stacking queues leading to wasted time for travellers, and to unnecessary emissions for those areas over which aircraft are held. Departing aircraft are also held in lengthy queues on the ground causing similar damaging effects. The additional runway will offer much needed capacity and also the resilience to maintain integrity of schedules when operational problems are encountered.
“The UK needs and deserves a world-class airport, without which the economy of the entire country, not just the London area, will decline.”
Olivier Jankovec, Director General of ACI EUROPE, representing Europe’s airports, said: “This hopefully marks the end of one of the longest, most publicly-consulted planning processes in the history of transport, anywhere in the world. The UK Government has succeeded in balancing the economic priority of maintaining the country’s competitiveness with the need to ensure that this new development is as environmentally-responsible as possible.
“Extremely severe environmental conditions have been placed on the eventual operation of the new runway and those who have fought against this approval should feel vindicated. The addition of intermodal rail connections to London-Heathrow is a welcome sign that the government is finally envisioning a broader and bolder infrastructure plan that will serve the UK better: economically, socially and environmentally.”
However, the announcement, far from marking the end of the process, will be followed by further opposition, as well as legal and political challenges. The Heathrow expansion plans have succeeded for the foreseeable future in placing aviation near the top of the green debate in the UK.