Last Thursday, while approving the construction of a third runway at Heathrow, Geoff Hoon claimed he was accompanying it with what he called "the toughest climate change regime for aviation of any country in the world." Cleaner planes, tougher regulation, green slots for takeoff and landing - the secretary of state was keen to broadcast the runway's green credentials.
You can understand why it's important for Geoff to make a lot of noise about green planes and strict regulation while cheerleading for a third runway. Pursuing a policy of aviation expansion while committing to an 80 per cent cut in UK emissions by 2050 might seem like a strange thing to be doing, particularly as Lord Turner of the Committee on Climate Change ruled that there must be "clear strategies" in place to cut emissions from aviation, otherwise any cuts made in other sectors will be wiped out.
So, if aviation emissions aren't cut 80 per cent by 2050, other emissions sectors will have to be cut even further. And that is a problem for the government, because aviation emissions have been rising rapidly and are predicted to keep going up - across the EU planes emit twice as much as they did in 1990, and emissions are predicted to grow 150 per cent by 2012. [PDF]
Expanding Heathrow will obviously lead to a significant rise in the emissions it produces. Even a quick calculation shows that a third runway is going to produce a lot more greenhouse gases. According to government figures, in 2005 Heathrow emitted 18.2 million tonnes of CO2 from 476,000 flights. On this basis, an extra 226,000 flights from the airport - the full operating capacity of a third runway - would produce an additional 8.64 million tones of CO2 every year.
If we do cut emissions 80 per cent by 2050, then in 2050 we will be able to emit, as a country, 118.5 million tones of CO2 annually. That means that in 2050 emissions from the third runway alone will be about 7.3 per cent of what the UK is allowed to emit. Emissions from Heathrow as a whole would account for 22.6 per cent of our carbon budget - over a fifth, from one airport! That's a massive chunk, and raises the question: Is Heathrow so important that it deserves over a fifth of our carbon budget?
To get around having to answer this question, the government's transport policy assumes that in the future planes will emit less - that newer planes will be more efficient, that planes will run on alternative, cleaner fuels, or that radically new aeroplane designs will cut emissions still further. Geoff Hoon stated that any new capacity at Heathrow will consist of "green slots." Only the cleanest planes will be allowed to use the new slots that will be made available..." Cleaner planes would use technologies including "the use of new technologies such as blended wings and the sustainable introduction of renewable fuels."
Unfortunately, all of this is a bit pie-in-the-sky. We're not going to see significantly cleaner planes by the time the runway becomes operational, because there are some basic technological restraints that make major leaps forward in efficiency very unlikely. For example, there's currently no viable alternative to kerosene for fuelling planes - a pretty serious problem for the ‘green plane' arguments. Although airport operators and airlines like to talk big about a wonderful, green future for aviation, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution found that the aviation industry's targets for efficiency increases are 'clearly aspirations rather than projections.' In other words - they're grossly exaggerated.
The central problem is that aviation expansion will drive rapidly increasing numbers of flights, overwhelming the benefits of any small increases in the efficiency of aircraft. One respected study on the impacts of aviation conservatively concluded that by 2050, even with optimistic assumptions about planes getting cleaner, and relatively modest growth rates in flight numbers, carbon dioxide emissions from aviation will approximately quadruple from 1990 levels.
Even assuming very ambitious efficiency improvements of 1 per cent per year per average flight between now and 2050, we'd see only a 34 per cent reduction in carbon emissions from each flight by 2050. Even in this best case scenario, and even with just 125,000 more flights per year, Heathrow would still be responsible for 12.8 per cent of Britain's entire carbon allowance for 2050 - about an eighth of the carbon dioxide the country may emit, under law, and all from one single airport. Doesn't sound great, does it?
It would be easier to take the rather vague promises of cleaner planes and stricter environmental controls on aviation seriously if it weren't for the close links between policymakers and the aviation industry bigwigs, and if both the industry and government didn't have a track record of colluding to break promises and environmental commitments. In the 1960s ministers promised "for all time" that there would be no expansion of Heathrow, followed closely by expansion. When Terminal 4 opened in 1978 there was another promise of no expansion and a cap of 275,000 flights. The pledge was broken within a year. With Terminal 5 the cap was raised to 480,000, and the prime minister and cabinet agreed that a third runway would be "totally unacceptable". In 1999, BAA insisted it did not want a third runway claiming at a press conference that an "additional runway [was] ruled out forever whether T5 is approved or not". In 2006 the transport secretary, Ruth Kelly, promised that a new runway would be a short, domestic one, with flights only over countryside to the west. She also promised carbon and pollution limits which never materialized.
So, green planes - not likely. Strict environmental regulation of Heathrow - don't be fooled. It would be tempting to say the third runway is business-as-usual from the government, but actually, when you take even a quick look at what it's going to mean for carbon emissions, it seems like new and previously unsuspected levels of foolishness.