Britain’s coalition government has struck down efforts to expand Heathrow Airport—one of the world’s busiest—from two runways to three. This unexpected curtailment applies as well to the smaller, nearby airports, Gatwick and Stansted.
According to a recent interview with Theresa Villiers, Britain’s minister of state for transport, the expected increase in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions was “a significant factor” in the Heathrow decision. The 2008 Climate Change Act requires a national reduction in GHG emissions of 34 percent by 2020 from 1990 levels. “The 220,000 or so flights that might well come with a third runway would make it difficult to meet the targets we’d set for ourselves,” Villiers said. Opponents of the government’s decision, decrying lost economic potential, note that aviation emissions constituted only 6 percent of GHG emissions in 2006.
According to a recently released government report, however, the addition of a runway and projected increases in demand of low-cost leisure travel—or “binge flying,” as it’s been described—could drive aviation emissions up to 25 percent of all GHG emissions by 2030. This same report indicated that increases in efficiency are rapidly outpaced by growing demand.
Environmental activists are finally celebrating what has been a multiple-year battle. As far back as 2007, numerous groups camped outside of Heathrow to protest the proposed expansion. Also in dissent, a recent report by the New Economics Foundation, an independent think tank, found that, contrary to government claims of economic gain, the additional runway could cost the United Kingdom upward of $10 billion once the full social and environmental costs are included in the calculation. “Historically,” explained report coauthor Ellis Lawlor, “governments have often overplayed the economic arguments in favor of big infrastructure developments.”
Though other airports worldwide continue to expand, and though increasing European air traffic may simply be rerouted from Heathrow to other nearby airports, this decision by Britain’s government remains unprecedented. From an environmental perspective, Houston, we have a solution.