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Predict and provide (and pollute)

Updated Tuesday, 20th January 2009

Joe Smith considers the environmental cost of a third runway at Heathrow airport

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Air travel is front of mind, personally and politically: I’ve just come off a flight booker website and found an amazingly/distressingly cheap return flight to Delhi for a work trip. When I was a school leaver the same amount of money wouldn’t have got me further than Barcelona by any means of transport. Air travel stats show blistering growth in flying for work and play in recent decades.

Despite the compelling story of a pilot safely landing on the Hudson river this week the far bigger air travel story in my view is the UK Government’s decision to give the go-ahead to the building of a 3rd Heathrow runway. But this is a story of more than domestic significance. A comment from the Chinese news agency Xinhua reads like an answer to an exam essay question on tensions between economic and environmental interests:

Despite claims by governments that the environment remains top of their agenda, they have often had to make a sacrifice as the economy becomes a greater priority. This is reflected by the recent decision by the British government, which gave the go-ahead to the controversial expansion of Heathrow airport in London, one of the busiest air hubs in the world. It seems that in the face of the recession, even a strong advocate of low-carbon growth must downplay their green ethics to make way for the economic development of the country.

Dongying Wang, Xinhua, 17 January 2009

Benny Peiser subbed this down for his perky and provocative ‘climate contrarian’ newsletter: ‘China Smiles As Britain’s Climate Policy Goes Up In Smoke’. Not for the first time with his missives I wouldn’t have put it quite like that myself, but it’s certainly true that this decision is a pretty tidy summary of how little the key players in the UK Government have absorbed about the meaning of the term ‘sustainability’. The Labour governments’ noisy claims to international leadership on climate change since 1997 look tawdry nowadays – and in a critical year for climate politics with the Kyoto follow up being negotiated in advance of it coming into force in 2012.

Heathrow airport [image by Amin Tabrizi, some rights reserved] Creative commons image Icon by Amin Tabrizi, some rights reserved under Creative-Commons license
Heathrow airport.

The decision not to manage demand (down) but rather to pursue the ‘sixties road building dictum of ‘predict and provide’ leaves little room for optimism about the goal of making big cuts in CO2 emissions in the UK. Air travel is still a relatively small proportion of CO2 emissions, but it is one of the fastest growing, and once people settle into consumption patterns based around cheap air travel these habits can be hard to break.

The defence that Minister Geoff Hoon offered up in the face of film star stunts targeted against the decision was playground stuff. He noted that they’re among the most enthusiastic users of the Heathrow-Los Angeles route. Emma Thompson may brush off the barb but I’m afraid it strikes its target with me. My Delhi air tickets will take me on a British Council sponsored tour of talks and films about media and environmental change, and yes, regular readers will know that last year I flew to Greenland with a Cape Farewell expedition.

I’ve come to my own deal with the devil about my decision to burn a good dose of jet fuel in relation to my work on communications and environmental change. But that doesn’t stop me feeling very sheepish indeed about these trips. But I come back to the fact that all the individualised worrying in the world isn’t going to help to make the price of air travel reflect its full environmental cost. Neither is it going to deliver big efficiency gains in the air fleet: these essential and urgent leadership tasks belong not to famous actors and unknown academics, but to politicians.





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