'Green' planes and broken promises

Posted by christian — 23 January 2009 at 2:20pm - Comments

A jumbo takes off.

Not green, and not strictly regulated

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.

Found an alarming item on a message board. Fair enough people do seems to love conspiracy theories, but this covered an angle I hadnt considered before. So I'll post it.

'Heathrow - Commerical expansion or future provision?

The issue of Heathrow has enflamed widespread discussion and protest in Britain, and after the issue forced a vote in the House of Commons recently, which sadly was marginally defeated, the subject is not going away any time soon.

The protests are based around all too common sense arguments on behalf of those, like myself, against the expansion. Climate control and air pollution, the destruction of both the countryside and the homes of those who are unlucky enough to be living on the runways planned route.

Yet few have considered a darker purpose behind this plan. Something that poses even more questions, each, darker than the surface arguments regarding the topics noted above.
If time proves these bleak suggestions true, then the rejection and protest voiced at this moment in UK history is even more important.

The government claims that the expansion is based around increasing air traffic to address the growing need for both cross Atlantic travel and also travel worldwide. Despite the logic, contradictory to this claim, that given the present economic recession, air travel is probably far from the minds of the everyday people of not only this country, but everywhere.
So, why increase the capacity of an airport if not for commercial use?

At present, there are 12 US air based operating on the UK mainland (QPSW June 2004) not including the 22 or more facilities available for US use in Britain) It is widely acknowledged that the UK has long formed a strategic ‘stepping stone’ for military traffic from the US to other parts of the world, in particular the Middle East. This was first put to major use during WW2 for access to the European Theatre of Operations (ETO). This is more important given the reluctance of other European countries to wholly support this role.

The suggestion is that if a large scale military action or a number of these, were ever instigated by the US, Britain would need to have the air traffic provision to cope with the large scale transport of both military hardware and personnel. Something that the established bases in the UK would at present be unable to cope with. The suggestion indicates that large scale transport of both military hardware and personnel would be a provision on or even above the instance experienced inWW2. Sea transport, like that used during WW2 is not a viable option in today’s flashpoint, instant response military culture, so it is logical to rule out ocean transport in favour of large scale air transport of everything needed to wage a military campaign, and also to maintain that campaign and ensure reliable supply networks.
So, the use of commercial airports to transport military personnel, leaving hardware to take normal military routes, makes perfect sense in the situation of a large scale conflict.
Let’s face it.
A population are unlikely to be driven to protest over men and women using planes. (beyond the predictable outcomes of such a use) But this would predictably change if arms supplies, tanks and missiles start trundling through so-called civilian channels.
So, is the expansion of Heathrow, really an expansion of the UK to accommodate large scale military transport, if that were ever required?
Or, more ominously, when it is needed?

If this dark suggestion has even the slightest element of truth behind it, it would mean that once again, agreements and pacts have been made, between the faceless manipulators that lurk in the shadows of policy and agenda, beyond the possibility of protest by both populace and ministers. It would also indicate plans for the near future and the role that each country will or will not play in the decades ahead. '

I'm sorry.

I may have missed out on aviation studies at school, but is there such a thing as a 'green' plane. Planes that run on used chip oil, or wind turbines, spring to mind, which would be nice, though obviously the drawback to the former would be the dangerous urge to go and visit your local chip shop everytime a plane flew over.

The government astounds me that in todays age of instant information via the internet, (and yes Mr Hoon, 99% of the population can read) they really expect us to just sit back and say, 'oh, thats alright then. The new runway will only have green planes using it!'

The stumbling block for the government in the situation is,

a) After recent actions by this government that were fueled by lies(WMD's anyone?), do they really think we trust them at all?

b) How do we really know what planes are going to be using the proposed new runway. They going to let people go check at a moments notice?

and ofc lastly

c) We are not stupid! We are well informed and have the ability to find the facts that time and time again totally undermine what the likes of Hoon says.

I think this issue, no matter its outcome, will be the issue that breaks the Labour governments chances at the next election. They might hope that it will just go away, but I for one, will not allow it to do so.

oh, yes, thats d) We dont forget!

I was chatting with some BA staff the other day who made me question whether the anti-expansion league is doing the right thing.
I was told that Heathrow currently operates at 96% capacity and that any minor issue such as fog severely disrupts the ability of planes to land, hence why half of all flights at Heathrow are late. This means the planes are either queuing on the ground (with engines running) or parked (flying) in a stack (queue) waiting to land. All this of course **increases** emissions.

I was also told that the third runway will reduce the airport operations to 80% of capacity, and crucially, that there will **not be an increase in the number of flights**. The third runway's purpose is to reduce the queues of planes on the ground and in the air. This effectively will **reduce** emissions since we won't have planes hanging around as such.

It seems to me the entire 3rd runway hate campaign may be entirely misinformed and doing the very opposite of what they claim to achieve. I empathise for the people who may lose their homes, but if the 3rd runway actually leads to an environmental benefit, surely that would make the bitter pill easier to swallow.

Unfortunately I cannot find any confirmation that the number of flights will not increase. There isn't a pro-3rd-runway campaign of the same public force as those against. If anyone out there can confirm or deny this I'd be very interested as this fact must be the very hinge of the argument either way...

While I support most of Greenpeace's causes, some of their propaganda have a strong taste of dogma, and I'm not about to let anyone (good intentions or not) make up my mind for me.

Regards,
Mr-undecided-due-to-lack-of-facts

Hey Mr Undecided,

You should certainly make up your own mind, but I'm afraid that if you've been told that flight numbers won't increase, you've been misinformed.

This is fairly straightforward. According to Geoff Hoon, the third runway will initially lead to an increase in flight numbers of 125,000 and will add capacity to the airport for up to an extra 222,000. (See http://tinyurl.com/ap2w5e.) In their 2003 Aviation White paper the government noted that demand at Heathrow is "always likely to be far in excess of its capacity." If the capacity is there, it will be used.

If planes queue less their emissions are less, but this argument has been very much overspun by the aviation lobby - in emissions terms any such efficiency savings would be massively outweighed by the increase in flight numbers, and there would always be pressure to use the full capacity of the airport. Building more runways isn't going to cut emissions.

Cheers,

Christian @ GPUK

Hi Christian,

Thank you, that cleared up the issue for me, and I conclude it's a pretty black and white case: 3rd runway bad.

Regards
Karl

Found an alarming item on a message board. Fair enough people do seems to love conspiracy theories, but this covered an angle I hadnt considered before. So I'll post it. 'Heathrow - Commerical expansion or future provision? The issue of Heathrow has enflamed widespread discussion and protest in Britain, and after the issue forced a vote in the House of Commons recently, which sadly was marginally defeated, the subject is not going away any time soon. The protests are based around all too common sense arguments on behalf of those, like myself, against the expansion. Climate control and air pollution, the destruction of both the countryside and the homes of those who are unlucky enough to be living on the runways planned route. Yet few have considered a darker purpose behind this plan. Something that poses even more questions, each, darker than the surface arguments regarding the topics noted above. If time proves these bleak suggestions true, then the rejection and protest voiced at this moment in UK history is even more important. The government claims that the expansion is based around increasing air traffic to address the growing need for both cross Atlantic travel and also travel worldwide. Despite the logic, contradictory to this claim, that given the present economic recession, air travel is probably far from the minds of the everyday people of not only this country, but everywhere. So, why increase the capacity of an airport if not for commercial use? At present, there are 12 US air based operating on the UK mainland (QPSW June 2004) not including the 22 or more facilities available for US use in Britain) It is widely acknowledged that the UK has long formed a strategic ‘stepping stone’ for military traffic from the US to other parts of the world, in particular the Middle East. This was first put to major use during WW2 for access to the European Theatre of Operations (ETO). This is more important given the reluctance of other European countries to wholly support this role. The suggestion is that if a large scale military action or a number of these, were ever instigated by the US, Britain would need to have the air traffic provision to cope with the large scale transport of both military hardware and personnel. Something that the established bases in the UK would at present be unable to cope with. The suggestion indicates that large scale transport of both military hardware and personnel would be a provision on or even above the instance experienced inWW2. Sea transport, like that used during WW2 is not a viable option in today’s flashpoint, instant response military culture, so it is logical to rule out ocean transport in favour of large scale air transport of everything needed to wage a military campaign, and also to maintain that campaign and ensure reliable supply networks. So, the use of commercial airports to transport military personnel, leaving hardware to take normal military routes, makes perfect sense in the situation of a large scale conflict. Let’s face it. A population are unlikely to be driven to protest over men and women using planes. (beyond the predictable outcomes of such a use) But this would predictably change if arms supplies, tanks and missiles start trundling through so-called civilian channels. So, is the expansion of Heathrow, really an expansion of the UK to accommodate large scale military transport, if that were ever required? Or, more ominously, when it is needed? If this dark suggestion has even the slightest element of truth behind it, it would mean that once again, agreements and pacts have been made, between the faceless manipulators that lurk in the shadows of policy and agenda, beyond the possibility of protest by both populace and ministers. It would also indicate plans for the near future and the role that each country will or will not play in the decades ahead. '

I'm sorry. I may have missed out on aviation studies at school, but is there such a thing as a 'green' plane. Planes that run on used chip oil, or wind turbines, spring to mind, which would be nice, though obviously the drawback to the former would be the dangerous urge to go and visit your local chip shop everytime a plane flew over. The government astounds me that in todays age of instant information via the internet, (and yes Mr Hoon, 99% of the population can read) they really expect us to just sit back and say, 'oh, thats alright then. The new runway will only have green planes using it!' The stumbling block for the government in the situation is, a) After recent actions by this government that were fueled by lies(WMD's anyone?), do they really think we trust them at all? b) How do we really know what planes are going to be using the proposed new runway. They going to let people go check at a moments notice? and ofc lastly c) We are not stupid! We are well informed and have the ability to find the facts that time and time again totally undermine what the likes of Hoon says. I think this issue, no matter its outcome, will be the issue that breaks the Labour governments chances at the next election. They might hope that it will just go away, but I for one, will not allow it to do so. oh, yes, thats d) We dont forget!

I was chatting with some BA staff the other day who made me question whether the anti-expansion league is doing the right thing. I was told that Heathrow currently operates at 96% capacity and that any minor issue such as fog severely disrupts the ability of planes to land, hence why half of all flights at Heathrow are late. This means the planes are either queuing on the ground (with engines running) or parked (flying) in a stack (queue) waiting to land. All this of course **increases** emissions. I was also told that the third runway will reduce the airport operations to 80% of capacity, and crucially, that there will **not be an increase in the number of flights**. The third runway's purpose is to reduce the queues of planes on the ground and in the air. This effectively will **reduce** emissions since we won't have planes hanging around as such. It seems to me the entire 3rd runway hate campaign may be entirely misinformed and doing the very opposite of what they claim to achieve. I empathise for the people who may lose their homes, but if the 3rd runway actually leads to an environmental benefit, surely that would make the bitter pill easier to swallow. Unfortunately I cannot find any confirmation that the number of flights will not increase. There isn't a pro-3rd-runway campaign of the same public force as those against. If anyone out there can confirm or deny this I'd be very interested as this fact must be the very hinge of the argument either way... While I support most of Greenpeace's causes, some of their propaganda have a strong taste of dogma, and I'm not about to let anyone (good intentions or not) make up my mind for me. Regards, Mr-undecided-due-to-lack-of-facts

Hey Mr Undecided, You should certainly make up your own mind, but I'm afraid that if you've been told that flight numbers won't increase, you've been misinformed. This is fairly straightforward. According to Geoff Hoon, the third runway will initially lead to an increase in flight numbers of 125,000 and will add capacity to the airport for up to an extra 222,000. (See http://tinyurl.com/ap2w5e.) In their 2003 Aviation White paper the government noted that demand at Heathrow is "always likely to be far in excess of its capacity." If the capacity is there, it will be used. If planes queue less their emissions are less, but this argument has been very much overspun by the aviation lobby - in emissions terms any such efficiency savings would be massively outweighed by the increase in flight numbers, and there would always be pressure to use the full capacity of the airport. Building more runways isn't going to cut emissions. Cheers, Christian @ GPUK

Hi Christian, Thank you, that cleared up the issue for me, and I conclude it's a pretty black and white case: 3rd runway bad. Regards Karl

About Christian Hunt

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Sea ice geek, former web editor at GP.

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