Heathrow’s third runway and the carbon price


in Economics, Politics, Rants, Science, The environment, Travel

I have commented before on the incoherence of how the United Kingdom plans to both cut greenhouse gas emissions and increase airport capacity. The December 8th report from the Committee on Climate Change perpetuates this mis-match, saying that the third runway for Heathrow could be compatible with government emission reduction targets, provided the price of carbon reaches £200 per tonne by 2050.

To me, this view is rather perplexing. Why build a runway, then use taxes to choke off the demand for it? Either your taxes won’t prevent the flights, making it harder to reach your carbon targets, or they will and your investment in the runway and supporting facilities will be a waste. The committee also assumes that aircraft engine efficiency will improve by 0.8-1.5% per year, that biofuels that don’t compete with food crops will emerge, and that high speed rail will displace a lot of short-haul flights in Europe. To take advantage of assumptions about the future to defend a dubious current policy is a practice all too common. Rather than pretending they can have it both ways, the UK should acknowledge that achieving its climate change goals will require reducing incredibly emissions-intensive activities like air travel.

Thankfully, the British Conservative Party – which is likely to take power with the next election – continues to oppose construction of the runway, precisely because it clashes with climate change objectives.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Scatter January 13, 2010 at 5:40 am

Yes I was more than a little puzzled by the CCC’s report. However you cut it (fudge it), expanding Heathrow is totally incompatible with any commitment to action on climate change. In particular it is incompatible in a country that has legislated 80% reductions as the UK has with the climate change bill.

The cuts required in other sectors to compensate for aviation will be extremely difficult to achieve. Effectively it requires total decarbonisation of housing and transport and substantial decarbonisation of industry by 2050. And all this purely so as to sustain the airline indsutry at current volumes or greater? I’m sorry but we have other priorities!

Improvements in aircraft efficiency are very slow:


But I do think that we should ditch biofuels for cars completely and instead produce only the best quality, lowest carbon, most sustainable biofuels and ringfence them for the airlines. Cars have alternatives, aircraft don’t. It’s not ideal but it’s a step in the right direction.

To alleviate Heathrow’s capactity problem, we should also start to actively phase out slots for domestic flights, and then start to phase out Western European slots.

Btw I don’t trust the Convservatives to hold their election pledges for one second, although this would be a huge one for them to do a U turn on. But they are desperate to get into power and will say anything to achieve that. Under the green veneer, I suspect they’re just the same old party in thrall to big business.

Milan January 13, 2010 at 3:50 pm

You make a lot of excellent points.

I agree that biofuels have more of a role in air travel than in ground transport, and share your concern that the British Conservatives won’t be as tough on carbon as promised when in office.

Still, as a Canadian it is nice to see a Conservative Party somewhere that is at least willing to discuss effective climate change mitigation policies.

Sarah January 14, 2010 at 1:17 am

I don’t trust the Conservatives on Heathrow either, especially given that Boris (the Tory mayor of London) is in favour of the expansion.

. March 15, 2010 at 8:50 am

Air travel drops for second year during recession

UK airports have suffered their biggest decline in passenger numbers since records began at the end of WWII.

They handled 216.8m passengers last year – 7.4% fewer than in 2008 – the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) said.

The recession in 2008 and 2009 represented the first time that passenger numbers had fallen for two successive years, CAA figures showed.

CAA economic regulation director Harry Bush said the numbers would “rebound” but the pace of recovery was uncertain.

He said the large decline highlighted the “enormous impact the recession has had on the aviation industry.

“Passenger numbers are now back to the level they were six years ago.

“Although they will certainly rebound, the pace of recovery is uncertain and it could be a number of years before they reach their peak level again,” he said.

. October 7, 2012 at 6:15 pm

Angle of Descent
October 3, 2012

The justifications for airport expansion turn out to be bogus.

. August 15, 2018 at 4:33 pm

The British government’s plan for a third runway at Heathrow was passed by the House of Commons by 415 to 119 votes. Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, was widely ridiculed for missing the vote, having previously said he would lie down in front of bulldozers to stop the runway. Other opponents of the runway vowed to continue their fight to prevent further noise and air pollution.

Problem in the air
Heathrow’s third runway could be blown off course by pollution
Emissions may breach the government’s clean-air targets

. May 17, 2019 at 3:36 pm
. February 17, 2020 at 11:33 am

Plan to expand Bristol airport rejected after climate protests

Councillors vote against plan endorsed by North Somerset council officers in decision hailed as ‘historic’

. February 27, 2020 at 2:06 pm

Heathrow third runway ruled illegal over climate change

Appeal court says decision to give go-ahead not consistent with Paris agreement

. July 11, 2020 at 8:24 pm

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