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What would a climate compatible Heathrow look like?

Heathrow plane_Charlie_FlickrWe have always known that aviation will be a hard nut to crack in tackling climate change. Digital technology was expected to bring people closer virtually but has had no impact on mitigating air travel which has continued to grow over the past decade. Meanwhile, the aviation industry has felt itself exempt from climate policy, a feeling which must have been emphasised by the limited role that climate considerations played in this week’s decision to expand Heathrow.

The numbers
Flying has benefits. Travel opens up opportunities and can expand people’s horizons. Recognising this, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) gave aviation a generous emissions settlement: flat emissions, rather than steeply declining ones. Rather than sticking to this settlement, Heathrow’s third runway will result in emissions between 40-44 MtCO2, well above the 37.5MtCO2 upper boundary suggested by the CCC. Higher emissions from Heathrow will mean other sectors, like buildings and road transport, will have to reduce emissions further than they expected. In effect, if not by intention, MPs voted to add costs to other sectors, while exempting aviation.

The government’s carbon fig leaf
The government’s suggested approach to keeping aviation emissions within limits is to rely on a strong carbon price (over £300 per tonne of carbon), a decrease in empty seats on planned flights, improvements in fuel efficiency and the use of biofuel. But what’s striking about the Heathrow decision is that none of these options actually have a credible policy pathway to achieve emissions reductions. Instead, the government appears to be willing the ends of lower carbon flying without investing in the means. The result is that the third runway will cause UK aviation to emit more CO2 in 2030 alone than all the UK’s coal power stations throughout the 2020s.

The comparison with coal is pertinent because it is a huge UK climate success story: in 2010, coal power was a larger emitter than all the airports in the UK combined. But government policy promoted renewables and then took the decision to phase out unabated coal. The result has been a halving of UK power sector emissions in the past five years, and the creation of a new renewables manufacturing industry.

A parallel approach of investing in technology and using smart policy to develop and deploy it is completely absent in aviation. The government intends to publish an aviation strategy in early 2019. The decision on Heathrow pre-empted the contents of the strategy, so if it is to be built, the strategy now must plan to reduce aviation emissions dramatically.

A low carbon aviation strategy?
This could require the aviation industry to pay for negative emissions technologies, to use biofuels that are provably sustainable, to invest in electric or hydrogen-fuelled aeroplanes and to improve aircraft efficiency radically. The UK could do worse than require airlines to adopt the newest aircraft: flights made by British Airways, which uses old aircraft, burn 50 per cent more fuel than carriers that have the newest planes. Designs for hugely more fuel efficient aircraft promise to halve fuel use compared to the best planes today. The UK should be commercialising these rapidly. Norway has tested two seater electric planes and the UK could join in a programme to scale these up, both in size and range.

The options are there. Broad assurances that technology will make a “huge difference”, as Transport Minister Chris Grayling said on Monday, won’t make these technologies come to market. If government is to live up to its climate commitments, it needs to use its power to regulate, to fund innovation and to deploy new technologies so aviation stops getting a free ride.

[Image: Boeing 747 landing at Heathrow, courtesy of Charlie via Flickr]
Written by

Senior policy advisor at Green Alliance, UK. Former climate campaigner at

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