The debate on airports expansion presents a false choice between prosperity and the environment

The carbon footprint of the UK’s 18 biggest airports has shrunk by three per cent since 2010, even though passenger numbers increased by five per cent over the same period.

The carbon footprint of the UK’s 18 biggest airports has shrunk by three per cent since 2010, even though passenger numbers increased by five per cent over the same period

In a recent blog on Left Foot Forward Keith Taylor MEP claimed that only the Green Party are being honest on airports expansion. I welcome Keith’s contribution to the debate.

However I believe fundamentally that what we need from all parties is an open, honest and informed debate on how we can ensure airports expansion takes place in an environmentally sustainable fashion.

Firstly let’s be clear: there is a compelling case for airports expansion in London and the South East and there has been for a long time.

Heathrow has already been full for a decade. Gatwick will be full by 2020 and all of London’s main airports combined will be at around 96 per cent capacity by the middle of the next decade without a decision on airports expansion in the very near future.

This is why the Airports Commission has concluded that London and the South East needs one new new runway by 2030 and possibly two by 2050. I think we should build two now.

But airports expansion isn’t merely about where we put the planes or runways. The fundamental strategic concern at stake here is about how we secure our future economic prosperity, and with it better jobs and higher living standards for our children and generations to come.

The fact is that Britain trades twenty times more with countries with which we have a direct air link and by value over 40 per cent of our exports go by air.

However the dilemma we face is that we urgently need to be able to connect with countries such as Brazil and China, but we can’t expand our international connectivity to these new emerging markets without additional runways.

The emerging markets matter as over half the growth in the world will come from these economies within about ten years.

I’m afraid the fact is that the constant dithering over where to build one new runway is already resulting in Britain becoming progressively less competitive than our rivals around the globe.  Our capital city has fewer weekly flights than our European rivals to seven of the eight growth economies identified by the IMF.

This is hardly surprising when you consider that on the continent Amsterdam has six runways, Frankfurt and Paris both have four – while Heathrow is left to manage with two and Gatwick just one. Only last month we saw Dubai overtake Heathrow as the world’s busiest airport.

Secondly, I do not believe we should be forced to make a crude choice between securing our future prosperity and securing our shared environment. With technological advances I simply do not believe that this is a choice we need to make.

Yes, there are environmental impacts associated with the aviation sector, but I have confidence in the experts that these impacts can be managed sustainably.

The independent Committee on Climate Change, which is comprised of some of the best climate change scientists in the land, has concluded that within a carbon capped framework a 60 per cent growth in flights by 2050 (compared with 2005 levels), is compatible with the UK’s overall carbon reduction targets. Indeed this analysis is informing all of Sir Howard Davies’ Airports Commission’s work.

Huge progress has been made in recent decades to make air travel more sustainable. The new aircraft coming into service today are around 70 per cent more fuel efficient than 40 years ago, and 20 per cent more efficient than 10 years ago.

As even newer aircraft are developed, these efficiencies should continue long into the future. Enhancements in air traffic management alone could improve fuel efficiency and CO2 emissions by a further 12 per cent.

The carbon footprint of the UK’s 18 biggest airports has shrunk by three per cent since 2010, even though passenger numbers increased by five per cent over the same period. Then add into the mix exciting new development’s such as BA’s venture to transform waste from landfill into jet fuel in Thurrock. Innovations like these are constantly changing the way we fly for the betterment of the environment.

Equally we must not shy away from having an intelligent and informed debate about the environmental impacts of having highly congested airports. It is not an efficient use of fuel if a plane has to circle above London for up to an hour because it cannot land.

Also if a plane is taxying on the ground for 40 minutes waiting to take off because of runway congestion, it uses enough fuel to propel the plane the same distance between London and New York. We must accept that there are climate change consequences to maintaining the status quo and not building any new runways.

This is why I am pleased that at the Labour conference in Manchester the Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls and the then Shadow Transport Secretary Mary Creagh both announced in their speeches that Labour is committed to a swift decision on airports expansion in the national interest, expanding capacity while taking into account the environmental impact. That’s the sensible approach to take.

Often in the debate on airports expansion, the powerful green lobby attempt to present the facts in a black and white fashion – offering us a crude and false choice between securing our future prosperity, or securing our future environment. Isn’t it time for a greater degree of sophistication when examining the evidence on this critical issue?

Jim Fitzpatrick is the MP for Poplar and Limehouse and formerly a Minister at the Department for Transport and the Department for Trade and Investment in the previous Labour Government. Follow him on Twitter

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13 Responses to “The debate on airports expansion presents a false choice between prosperity and the environment”

  1. robertcp

    I would suggest that we add one runway to Gatwick, Luton or Stansted.

  2. Leon Wolfeson

    Do you think that hasn’t been considered?

  3. Leon Wolfeson

    Sure – the Greens disagree, though – another point where I have a problem with them.
    I can’t help but think that austerity fits their goals very well, as shrinking the economy shrinks emissions in the short to medium term.

  4. James Nesbitt

    Gatwick is the best option, they wouldn’t have to use public funds. And if work started tomorrow it could be ready by 2018.

  5. Tom

    Then you’re clearly not listening to the debate, Jim. Environmental groups have been extremely clear that expansion of airports is not only environmentally harmful, but also economically unnecessary. You’re setting up the false dichotomy yourself.

  6. Dave Stewart

    The facts are pretty clear, more runways equals more air traffic equals more emissions. Most of your solutions to this were prefixed with the word could. These technologies you talk about are not mature and cannot be relied upon to deliver the carbon savings you talk of. It is exactly this sort of kicking the ball into the long grass attitude over the past 30 or so years since the danger of climate change became very apparent which has found us in the position we are in now. Needing to cut emissions so drastically. If we had listened back then the task would have been much easier to achieve and would have required much less drastic action. Putting it off further will simply make the correction much more difficult in the future.

    We need to reduce our carbon footprint immediately not at some undefined time in the future with a as yet uninvented technology. What good are air trade routes t countries which are suffering mass migration and having major cities abandoned because of rising sea levels.

    I would much rather that the country be a little worse off than see catastrophic climate change.

  7. sarntcrip

    legally no work can start at gatwick before 2 luton and stanstead are not yet at full capacityif and it’s a big if we need more capacity no expansion should happen until the latest quiet engine tech has been employed on every aircraft these two airports are were it should happen reasonable access to the capital

  8. Howard Dawber

    A very thoughtful article. The current situation is itself unsustainable and damaging to the environment. All the major studies including the White Paper in 2003 and the Davies Commission have agreed that London needs more capacity.
    We’ve killed a lot of trees writing all the commissions and reports.
    It is time to bite the bullet and identify one of the airports for a modest increase in capacity with an additional or longer runway.

    Now when we build it we need to make sure it is serviced by additional public transport infrastructure, reducing the number of people (including staff) who travel to airports by road, and of course continue to promote the development of lighter, more efficient aircraft and engines using less carbon based fuel per passenger mile.

    Finally we should also look again at investment in more high speed rail links to reduce the need for short-haul air travel. They need to link up to the airports, too, so passengers from Scotland for example can interline onto a long haul flight in London by rail instead of feeling they have to get a plane to the “hub”.

  9. robertcp

    Of course, it is being considered.

  10. Guest

    Yes, because they see economic contraction as a wonderful thing. I disagree.

  11. Guest

    You’d rather see other countries get the business.

    Your calls for turning off the lighting and heating for the poor is what’s happening, rejoice! The footprint’s going down. That there hasn’t been enough poverty before for you, never mind the long-term effects will be a disaster…

  12. Dave Stewart

    Firstly could you kindly point to where I have endorsed “turning off the lighting and heating for the poor” or that I some how like or support poverty.

    To answer your question however no I would not like to see other countries get the business. I would prefer that all countries around the world take series and immediate action to lower carbon emissions. However in reality we in the UK have little control over what other countries do, all we can do is get our own house in order and attempt through diplomacy to get other countries to do likewise.

    I am very tired of this shrill black and white argument suggesting that the only two options are cut green house gas emissions or economic growth. It is perfectly possible to achieve both at the same time. Rather than focusing on growth to the exclusion of all other considerations we should be aiming for growth which is sustainable both environmentally and socially. Growth at all costs policies are what have got us into this mess. Continuing them will not get us out of it.

    Also if you are going to attack me and put words in my mouth please have the decency to do so under your own name or do you not believe in what you say enough to do so?

  13. Tom

    Not really – I haven’t seen anyone object to airports on that basis.

    But as an aside, economic contradiction is clearly not incompatible with rising living standards for the majority – it would simply have to be accompanied by a large redistribution of wealth.

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