Runaway Runway Needs A Rethink

Visualising the members of the Airports Commission, settling down to consider The Runway Problem now that the consultation period is over, it helps me to mentally transpose them into a smoke-filled office in Whitehall during WW1.

There they sat, puffing away around a large wooden table, deciding how much tobacco to send the boys on the front line.  Of course the mandarins, then, had no idea that perhaps the most joyous component of the rations the troops would receive – intended to cheer and sustain – was deadly. The realisation decades later that cigarettes cause cancer does not condemn those decision makers. They sought to provide the lads in the trenches with a little comfort amidst the slaughter.

But when history looks back at Sir Howard Davies, Professor Ricky Burdett, Professor Dame Julia King, Vivienne Cox and Sir John Armitt in a similar scene, I’m not sure their decisions will be remembered so indulgently.

The WW1 strategists had an unfair advantage: they didn’t know about smoking’s link to cancer. The Airport Commission’s deliberations, by contrast, are set against an entirely informed backdrop. We know that emissions from fossil fuels are harmful to the environment. That time is running out. That carbon use needs to be drastically reduced, and right away. The moral obligation to employ radical thinking falls to the Airports Commission with immediate effect.

Ok, so their brief didn’t come with a big heavy tome of scientific research stretching back decades, but this information is freely available.

The Commissioners know that under current law, the UK only has until 2050 to cut carbon emissions by 80% from 1990 levels. And yet the insuperable need for additional runway capacity seems to be blindly accepted as a fait accompli.

In fact when the Commissioners – an illustrious group of professors, knights, development experts, engineers, and the UK’s Low Carbon Business Ambassador – were first drawn together in September 2012, they were asked to address both whether we should expand airport capacity (year 1 of its work) and – if so – how and where (year 2).

Cait Hewitt from the Aviation Environment Federation says that while the timetable suggests a particular outcome, “the Commission was in theory supposed to have the right to conclude that we shouldn’t build new capacity.”

The terms of reference for the Committee’s work mention the environment several times, with the Commission required to “take into account the economic, social and environmental costs and benefits,” of each scheme, as well as their operational deliverability.

But aviation has a funny habit of making a special case for itself, and slipping through the gaps in terms of climate policy making. Within current frameworks, aviation is allowed emissions 120% higher than 1990 levels. To compensate for aviation’s privileged position, carbon emissions in the rest of the economy need to be cut by 85%, a level regarded by the Committee on Climate Change, CCC, as “at the limits of what is feasible”.

Hewitt says that “it seems the future Government would have two options: either they’d need to focus on restricting demand – by introducing very high new ticket taxes for example – or they’d need to manage supply by imposing restrictions on the use of existing capacity. Since Government policy is to support regional airport growth, it’s very hard to see that happening.

“Either way, all the Commission has really done so far is to make a very long argument for redistributing to London the passenger growth that might have happened at other airports around the UK, because that’s the only way that a new runway could possibly be compatible with the Climate Change Act,” Hewitt adds.

Greenpeace UK says that building another new runway can only be made to appear economically viable by ignoring the bulk of the carbon costs, which is exactly what the Davies Commission is doing.

“We can safely ignore anyone claiming that a new runway might be beneficial to the UK economy until they have answers for where the extra carbon savings will come from, and how they will be affordable,” says Greenpeace chief scientist Dr Doug Parr. “At a time when even developing countries like China are seeking ways to manage emissions from aviation, the Davies Commission’s current approach, and the political view that short-term business needs should trump everything, is wilfully myopic. This is not what real leadership looks like, on the climate or any issue of real economic importance”.

Real leadership. Ouch. But can we really expect this of Sir Howard Davies and colleagues, when all other bodies have passed the environmental buck in the runways debate.

It’s a really hard gig, being the meerkats of our generation. Spotting danger and responding accordingly, for the global good. Daring to say out loud that no further runway should go ahead until aviation is decarbonized, however impossible this concept may seem.
“Smart of the current Government, having promised not to approve new runways during this Parliament, to set the deadline for the Commission to report straight after the election, leaving parties free to reposition themselves if they want to,” says Hewitt.

Sadly for environmentalists, the economic arguments against expansion are shot down even before they have a chance to fly. It doesn’t seem to matter that Heathrow is mostly foreign owned [Spain, Qatar, Quebec, Singapore, the US and China] and has been found to aggressively minimise payment of corporation tax. As does Gatwick. And that aviation fuel is tax free. And airline tickets are exempt from VAT. Which loses the exchequer billions of pounds every year, thanks to some pretty impressive lobbying by the aviation industry.

Head of the Public Accounts Committee Margaret Hodge reiterated comments she made in October last year that “ministers should put Gatwick and Heathrow under pressure to pay corporation tax as the bidding process for airport expansion reaches its conclusion”.

Hodge restated that airports made a fortune from their UK activities and that “for them to pretend they are only in it for the benefit of the UK economy is a touch hypocritical.”

But this doesn’t register in the debate. Nor does it seem to matter that the Commission’s own modelling of the direct economic impacts of a new runway are net-negative under some of its forecasts, even before accounting for full carbon costs.

John Stewart, head of pressure group HACAN, which campaigns against Heathrow expansion, says that if laws were changed and these taxes and VAT were paid, fares would go up and demand would be managed, obviating the need for new runways.

“Some of the underlying issues have been sidelined by the Davies process, and there have been no real questions asked about the issue of managing demand through getting rid of tax breaks for the aviation industry. Many of the climate change assumptions Davies is working on have not been challenged. If these were included it would be a game changer”.

Can we expect the Airports Commission to think differently and deliver a verdict that is so way off the growth trajectory that politicians and business thirst for?

Climate expert Dr Alice Bows-Larkin from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Research recognises that meeting the UK’s international commitments to the 2°C characterisation of ‘dangerous climate change’ poses huge challenges for policymakers, businesses and wider civil society.

“Being locked into a fossil fuel infrastructure means that a growing economy hampers efforts to reduce CO2 emissions. Cutting CO2 in line with 2°C demands tough and brave decision-making, that, in the short-term, may not appear financially ‘optimal’ or sensible.  However, if we consider the systemic and irreversible impacts of climate change, short-term finance must surely give way to long-term economic prosperity” says Bows-Larkin.

“Until policymakers put more emphasis on taking decisions that bring positive benefits in the long-term, rather than policies that make temporary gains, they will be unwilling to implement policies that dampen growth in high carbon consuming sectors, such as the aviation sector  – with the UK prosperity ultimately suffering the consequences of their short-sightedness”.

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