If the government decides to act on Howard Davies’ recommendation (and doing so would be a political minefield) Londoners will be forgiven for treating any air quality guarantees with a heavy pinch of salt.
Even before Wednesday morning’s announcement, London’s air quality was so bad that the government did not expect it to meet EU safety thresholds before 2030 – a full two decades later than the European deadline.
In April, the supreme court ordered David Cameron’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) team to come up with a new plan by the end of the year to clean up London’s polluted skies as soon as possible. Their chances of doing so have just been blown wildly off course.
“The scale of the challenge facing Defra was already enormous but this turns it into a Herculean task,” said Anna Heslop, a lawyer for the green law firm ClientEarth, which brought a case against Whitehall over its failure to tackle air quality. “It is a matter for the government to decide whether they now think it is impossible or not.”
Heathrow is one of the UK’s pollution hotspots. In 2012, it breached safety thresholds for nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter air content at several different locations – and times – according to the airport’s own measurements.
Much of the pollution comes from the phalanxes of cars, taxis and buses which deposit and pick up travellers, rather than the planes themselves. To offset the traffic increase from any third runway, the government will, at the minimum, have to consider congestion zones, vehicle bans and changed bus routes, Heslop says.
As things are, an air quality map drawn up by independent monitors at Kings College shows a big yellow blob of fetid air squatting to the west of London, where Heathrow sits.
And local air pollution is only part of the story. A third runway will mean more flights and so more CO2 emissions contributing to climate breakdown.
The aviation industry is responsible for around five percent of annual global warming, when these emissions, along with water vapour, soot and sulphates, contrails, and enhanced sirrus cloud formations are added to its CO2 figures. That contribution is rising fast. By 2030, airline emissions are projected to double from 2005 levels. Between 1990 and 2006, they rose 87% in Europe alone.
The Airports commission concluded that a new runway could be compatible with the UK’s legally-binding climate targets. But this would depend on improbable improvements in aircraft efficiency; a misreading of the climate impacts of available biofuels; and a 6,600% increase in carbon taxes, according to Greenpeace UK’s chief scientist, Doug Parr.
“This is just a smokescreen to hide the obvious fact that a new runway will almost certainly derail our legally-binding climate targets,” he said. “In the year the world is coming together to tackle climate change, we should be talking about how to manage demand, not where to store up a new carbon bomb.”
Ironically, demand for air travel is actually falling in the business sector, with 61% of FTSE 500 companies in one poll saying they expected to travel more by train and 87% expecting to use more video conferencing in future. Most of the demand that the new runway is likely to cater for comes from a relatively small group of wealthy travellers – around 15% of the UK population who take 70% of all flights.
To remain compatible with the Climate Change Act’s target of limiting aviation emissions to 37.5m tonnes of CO2 in 2050, the Aviation Environment Foundation estimates that 36% fewer passengers would have to fly in and out of airports in the southwest, 11% less in Scotland, 14% less in the northwest, and 55% less in the West Midlands.
If the benefits of a third runway are easily available only to a few, its environmental, health and climate costs could well end up being paid by many.