Airport expansion is unsustainable – environmentally, socially, and politically. First and foremost, aviation is a hugely polluting industry, responsible for emissions of around 34 Mt CO2 e in 2013 in the UK. Airports also cause enormous suffering for local residents by drastically reducing local air quality and contributing considerably to local noise pollution. Imagine having a plane fly over your house at 80 decibels every 90 seconds. That’s something as loud as a pneumatic drill or a motorbike. Every 90 seconds!
In 2010 David Cameron promised he would not back a third runway at Heathrow, “no ifs, no buts”. That’s the phrase Plane Stupid protesters picked up on before Christmas when they blocked the tunnel leading to terminals 1, 2 and 3. It’s also a phrase that demonstrates as well as any other the government’s willingness to compromise their promises and U-turn on key commitments such as their commitment to tackling climate change.
A non-committal response, or worse, no commitment at all, on climate change is exactly what is not needed following the Paris climate summit in December. The summit was considered to be a pivotal moment in the global struggle to limit the worst effects of climate change, and time is running out to reach a global agreement that will prevent warming of more than 2°C taking place, the agreed threshold considered to be “dangerous climate change”. James Hansen, the eminent climate scientist, lambasted the agreement as a “fraud” because while it (somewhat ambitiously) outlines an aim to keep warming to below 1.5°C, it does not legally commit any of the signatories to do so.
Our dependence on carbon-based fossil fuels is driving climate change. Aviation is inherently carbon intensive because of its reliance on petroleum-derived fuels like Kerosene. You can’t safely substitute more than 10% of jet fuel for biofuels, and that’s before you even consider the associated issues of the food vs. fuel debate.
Aircraft themselves are also difficult to decarbonise – most of the efficiency savings that are currently technologically possible (such as weight reductions or streamlining aircraft bodies) have already been made and there are few remaining options. Marginal reductions of aviation’s carbon footprint are possible, for instance with the introduction of operational measures like air traffic management, but ultimately the only thing that will reduce emissions is reducing the number of flights.
In this context, it is clear that government plans to expand Heathrow airport are utterly unsustainable, and totally irresponsible. Direct actions like those taken by Plane Stupid activists last month and in July are becoming more and more necessary given the failure of our government to listen to popular demands to scrap destructive plans like a third runway.