Heathrow expansion could cost the UK £300m in air pollution fines

A bigger airport is not compatible with Boris Johnson's targets for clean air


The best way for a future mayor to stop Heathrow from expanding is to ensure that London’s air is good to breathe by 2020. If we achieve that, then an expanded Heathrow will become the only place in the UK with unacceptable levels of air pollution. It will breach the rules from the day the new runway opens for business, and make the UK liable for estimated fines of £300m.

Boris Johnson thinks that we can reduce air pollution below the European limit values by 2020 with a combined effort by City Hall and government. The current plan by the Department for Environment doesn’t reduce pollution to a legally acceptable level until after 2030.

However, the Supreme Court has said that a new government action plan is needed by the end of this year to meet these legal limits as soon as possible.

I’m not under-estimating the cost to the government of hitting the 2020 target, but they can no longer say that it isn’t possible to do. The new plan has to include a well-funded scrappage scheme for diesel vehicles and an Ultra Low Emission Zone which covers inner London (rather than just the congestion charge area).

Transport for London have to dump their road building plans and focus everything on traffic reduction instead. You can’t reduce air pollution by encouraging more traffic – building more roads will make the problem worse.

If the threat of court action and a growing awareness of the health impacts does reduce air pollution in the UK below the European limits, then the expansion of Heathrow will become a non-starter legally. You can’t approve a big development that potentially increases cars by 50 per cent, along with NO2 air pollution by 50 per cent, and claim you didn’t realise how bad it was for people’s health.

Unless, of course, the UK leaves the European Union and also dumps the air pollution rules which it transposed into British law.

Climate change remains the biggest threat to humanity’s future and yet, it won’t carry the same weight in the Heathrow debate as air pollution. The Davies Commission predicts that it can stay within the limits for CO2 emissions set by the UK Climate Commission for 2050, but makes big assumptions about the rest of the UK’s transport and energy systems being completely carbon free in the next thirty five years.

The Commission suggests a huge price hike that adds hundreds of pounds to any family holiday, as well as juggling flights around so that Heathrow or Gatwick grow at the expense of all the regional airports.

However, none of this faces the same scrutiny as the air pollution issue because climate change has a much weaker legal framework supporting action, and much longer time scales for taking that action.

The expansion of either Heathrow or Gatwick would be bad news for climate change, but a London mayor only has the power to stop Heathrow. They can scupper any Heathrow plans by taking radical measures to reduce pollution in London, leaving Heathrow exposed as the UK’s only pollution hotspot.

That would then leave City Hall free to mount a legal challenge against expansion on air pollution grounds.

Darren Johnson is a Green Party member of the London Assembly. Follow him on Twitter

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