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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