Heathrow Through The Looking Glass

The government is consulting right now on the expansion of Heathrow airport - which would be a climate disaster. But it's impossible from the information they provide to find that out.

As our new video, "Heathrow through the Looking Glass", makes clear, the government's claim that expansion is compatible with our climate targets really is a fairytale.

You can respond to the consultation by emailing runwayconsultation@dft.gsi.gov.uk

But first, you might want to know what the facts are behind "Heathrow through the Looking Glass"

"The government had taken a back to front decision to expand Heathrow"

First David Cameron reneged on his 'No ifs, no buts, no third runway' pledge and set up the Airports Commission to assess the alleged need for new aviation capacity in the south east (and in particular to judge between profit-hungry Heathrow and Gatwick airports, both eager to expand). Then, following the Airports Commission plumping for Heathrow, Theresa May put aside her own previous statements against Heathrow expansion and opposition even within her own cabinet, and decided that appearing 'open for business' post Brexit was more important than any other considerations.

"While all other sections of the economy are supposed to cut emissions, aviation is allowed to grow"

 The UK is legally bound through its Climate Change Act 2008 to reduce CO2 levels by 80% from 1990 levels by 2050. To ensure this occurs, the government takes advice from the Committee on Climate Change (CCC),  an independent, statutory body.

While international aviation and shipping are not formally included in the Act, they are taken account of in the 'carbon budgets' the CCC sets. The CCC has made it very clear that a limit of 37.5Mt by 2050 for flights departing the UK (around a quarter of the UK's 2050 total emissions) is the maximum that can be accommodated that is compatible with the Climate Change Act. This is higher than aviation emissions were in 1990.

“Mind you, the government predicts we’ll go over that limit even without expanding Heathrow.”

The Department for Transport have predicted aviation emissions to reach 47Mt by 2050

"But… we know we’re not doing enough to stop climate change!” said Alice

The UK is currently off course to meet carbon emissions targets from 2030 onwards. The Committee on Climate Change found that under current policies we are on track to make about half the emissions reductions needed under the Climate Change Act. We're already in carbon debt with no credit card, so there is no room to take account of extra emissions from aviation.

“But the Airports Commission say we can expand Heathrow and keep within the limit”

Still with us? This is where it gets weird. The Airports Commission suggested two 'scenarios'. The first is keeping to the limit of 37.5Mt, the 'carbon capped scenario'. However much 'technical improvements' are assumed, ultimately passenger numbers need to be brought down. If you have to increase the carbon price so much that it puts people off flying then that will be across the country, not just in the south east. This means more passenger flights in London but fewer in other parts of the country, further skewing the UK's economy to the south east. And also restricting mainly those on lower incomes. 

How much would prices have to rise by? This depends on how much technical improvements can make flying more carbon-efficient (if there is a big improvement in efficiency, more flights are possible within the limit), and what the underlying demand is (how many flights there would be if there was no carbon price to restrict demand).

On both of these issues, the Airports Commission seems optimistic. This is particularly true about future efficiency improvements, where assumptions are made which are not widely accepted. There are huge problems with biofuels, for example, as a means of reducing emissions, because the land use changes involved in growing them carry increased emissions.

So what this would mean for ticket prices is not clear, but if the optimism about future technology is not correct, a family of four could have to pay an extra £435 return from Manchester to Tenerife or £363 London to Athens to keep within the limits.

As the government announced its support for a new runway at Heathrow, the Department for Transport released a technical paper which described the 'carbon capped scenario' (restricting aviation emissions to a level consistent with our legal obligations under the Climate Change Act) as  ‘unrealistic in future policy terms'. In other words, it can't be done if a third runway is built at Heathrow.

The paper then continued to describe the impacts of a third runway assuming the other scenario... carbon trading.

“Oh, the other plan is to ignore the limits and let aviation emissions grow and say companies can pay for carbon cuts elsewhere to make up for it.”

In the 'carbon traded scenario' aviation emissions would be allowed to grow above the limit recommended by the Committee on Climate Change to meet our legal obligations under the Climate Change Act, with companies offsetting their emissions by buying carbon credits elsewhere.

Offsetting has a dubious record. A recent report found that 85% of the offset projects under the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism failed in the objective of reducing emissions. It is very difficult to prove that any project actually reduced emissions compared to what would have happened anyway. It is also not a system that fits well when the goal is to dramatically reduce global emissions - we need to cut emissions from flying AND reduce emissions from deforestation, not trade one off against the other.

The international aviation industry has recently come up with a deal where aviation emits increasing amounts of CO2 but, on a voluntary basis to start with, participating countries pay for offsets. This weak arrangement is in no way a get out of jail free card for claiming that Heathrow expansion is compatible with our climate commitments.

There's more detail in the new WWF report 'Grounded: Ten reasons why international offsetting won't solve Heathrow's climate change problem'

'Magical thinking'

Comments by Mary Creagh, chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, have emphasised the frustration with the government refusing to show its working on climate change, using terms like 'magical thinking' and 'fantasy'. The committee's formal report is more restrained but the summary is worth reading:

There has been no clarity from the Government on carbon emissions. The Government’s headline cost-benefit analysis for Heathrow expansion is based on a hypothetical international framework to reduce emissions which would leave international aviation emissions 15% higher than the level assumed in the Fifth Carbon Budget (2028–2033).

The Government has said Heathrow “can” be delivered within emissions limits but it hasn’t decided or stated what these limits are. It is considering rejecting the Committee on Climate Change’s advice on the limits that should be adhered to and the level of passenger demand which is compatible with those limits. The Government’s revised aviation strategy must set out its approach to reducing emissions, the target it will work to and the measures it will take to close the policy gap between where we currently are and where we will need to be in each carbon budget period to 2050. If the Government does reject the Committee on Climate Change’s advice on aviation emissions it should  set out clearly the resulting additional emissions reduction requirements on other sectors of the economy and the resulting costs to those sectors. These assumptions should be tested with industry and subjected to independent scrutiny by the Committee on Climate Change.

Take action today

You can respond to the government's consultation on building a third runway at Heathrow (the National Policy Statement) by emailing runwayconsultation@dft.gsi.gov.uk

Since MPs have to vote on the final National Policy Statement, there will be further opportunities to raise concerns once a new Parliament is elected. It is vital that MPs are not asked to vote before the government produces a clear plan on aviation emissions. The Committee on Climate Change, in a statement in Nov 2015, said that government should publish an effective policy framework for aviation emissions by autumn 2016.  This has not happened. It is the clearest sign that we are living in a back to front world that the government have not produced such a plan in advance of the public consultation.

Responding to the consultation

Email runwayconsultation@dft.gsi.gov.uk

Click here for email with pre-filled text if your email programme allows. Don't forget to add your name and postal address!

The text below is meant as a starting point - if you can write your own response or at least edit it, it will carry more weight. There is plenty more to add!

Subject: Consultation response to the Heathrow National Policy Statement

I strongly oppose the building of a new runway at Heathrow airport, because it would make it impossible for the UK to achieve the emissions reductions required by the 2008 Climate Change Act. While aviation may not technically be included in the Act, it is taken account of in the Committee on Climate Change carbon budgets. The Committee has given clear advice that other sections of the economy would not be able to compensate for aviation going over its 'planning assumption' of 37.5 Mt.The Committee has also advised against the use of carbon credits to offset emissions and the use of these to bring down overall emissions has been shown to be highly unreliable.

By basing its cost-benefit analysis on the Airports Commission's 'carbon traded' scenario, the government appears to be ready to reject the advice of the Committee on Climate Change, fatally undermining not just the Climate Change Act, but the Paris climate agreement.

Public statements that Heathrow expansion can be delivered within emissions limits are meaningless without an explanation of whether this means rejecting expert advice on limiting climate change and increasing aviation emissions beyond 37.5Mt. Or, alternatively, under the Airports Commission's 'carbon capped' scenario, explaining what level of carbon price would be added to air tickets to bring demand down, whether this would be applied across the economy, and how it would affect airports in other parts of the UK.

In addition, a Heathrow third runway would add to the burden of air pollution, already over legal limits in London, and cause significant distress by increasing aircraft noise pollution.

It is of crucial international importance that the UK government does not abandon its own climate obligations at a time when the Paris climate agreement is at risk because of the actions of the new US administration. Approving a third runway at Heathrow would seriously damage the UK's credibility on this issue.

Your name

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Ultimately the central fact is quite simple: if a Heathrow third runway is allowed to go ahead it would leave our Climate Change Act in tatters and make a mockery of the UK ratifying the Paris climate deal.

But you might also want to mention:

  • The cost to the public purse of the road and rail infrastructure will be colossal. TfL estimates the cost to the taxpayer of transport links to an expanded Heathrow would be £18.2 billion. Just think of the economic and social benefits if that kind of sum was invested in sustainable transport in the north of England (which gets just a sixth of the investment in transport infrastructure that London does)
  • Air pollution is already above legal limits in London, causing more illness than either obesity or alcohol use, around 10,000 deaths in the capital each year. A new runway would make this even worse.
  • And finally, the government is prepared to betray our climate commitments for... what exactly? There is no airport capacity crisis. Stansted's runway slots are half empty. The majority of flights are taken by frequent leisure flyers. It has been estimated that this 'jet set' of 15% of people in the UK take 70% of international flights. Only one in ten international flights by UK residents is now for business.
  • The 'economic case' for a new runway has been shown to have been wildly overstated. Industry lobbyists fail to mention that while the aviation sector is estimated to make a direct contribution of £18bn to the British economy it also enjoys an annual tax subsidy of around £11bn from VAT and fuel duty exemptions. Holidays and other travel results in £17bn more spent abroad by UK residents than is brought into this country by visitors.

Campaign against Climate Change consultation response

West London Friends of the Earth has shared a 'simplified response' to the consultation that may be useful to those wanting to address non-climate issues in more detail.

The Aviation Environment Federation has compiled 50 reasons why Britain doesn't need a new runway.

George Monbiot explains here that climate change means no airport expansion - at Heathrow or anywhere.

Even Theresa May agreed, before she became Prime Minister.

A Heathrow third runway "would undermine our national [climate] targets and seriously damage the health of the local community.”

These are the words of Theresa May in 2008, welcoming the Climate Change Act.