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Heathrow expansion: third runway debate rumbles on

Major travel companies do not normally oppose plans to expand airports. But The Co-operative Travel broke ranks last month by coming out against a third runway at Heathrow.

Describing aviation’s contribution to climate change as “significant and growing”, the company said: “We do not support the development of a third runway at Heathrow and, in principle, all other new runways in the UK unless there is a clear sustainability case.

“Aviation volume should only be allowed to grow in line with improvements in technology that allow total emissions to remain stable.”

The Co-operative Travel managing director Mike Greenacre said: “We cannot see any justification for new runways.”

This striking stance followed an analysis of government projections for airline growth and emissions, carried out with the Campaign for Better Transport – formerly Transport 2000.

Greenacre said: “The ­research found a third runway at Heathrow and other new runway proposals conflict with the UK’s target to reduce ­carbon-dioxide emissions by 60% by 2050.

“If we do not manage aviation growth within its current emission levels, we will have no chance of meeting the UK’s greenhouse gas targets. A line in the sand has to be drawn.”

Improving technology does not justify expansion, he added. “Technological progress would allow for moderate growth. However, the industry needs to ramp up its efforts for this to be realised.

“If the industry can demonstrate it is able to expand without increasing emissions, growth would be best accommodated at existing UK regional airports.”

Government approval?

The Co-op’s move is significant because the argument for a third Heathrow runway appeared over at the official level. Business leaders demanded it, the government signalled its approval and the industry believed the case won – albeit local campaigners and environmental groups do not agree.

But in June, Conservative leader David Cameron accused the government of “pig-headedly pursuing a third runway” and said: “The most important priority for Heathrow is making it better, not bigger.”

“The most important priority for Heathrow is making it better not bigger”

He suggested the economic case for expansion “falls apart” under scrutiny and suggested ministers look at it again.

“The case is based on a massive increase in the number of transfer passengers [but] the economic value of transfer passengers is hotly disputed,” said Cameron, “even without addressing the serious environmental concerns.”

That led Mike Carrivick, head of the UK Board of Airline Representatives, to complain: “Cameron is way off beam.”

Cameron may be hedging his bets, but given the Tories’ lead in the polls it is likely to be a government led by him that signs off the project or ­pronounces it dead.

British Airways chief executive Willie Walsh was sufficiently alarmed to tell a conference last month: “Without transfer passengers, Heathrow would become a regional airport.”

Walsh also hit out at a report by business lobby group London First. The group supports a third runway but calls for a reduction in flights to relieve congestion in the meantime by cutting Heathrow’s capacity by 1% a year.

The Department for Transport is still expected to give the go-ahead for a third runway in October, although it has fallen behind schedule and continues to process 70,000 submissions to a consultation earlier this year.

Carbon emission targets

Transport secretary Ruth Kelly has repeatedly signalled her support for expansion and business secretary John Hutton insisted last month: “We will take the necessary
decisions on airport expansion.”

However, what The Co-operative Travel has done is highlight the basic contradiction in the government’s own forecasts. Quite simply, its targets for CO2 reductions and airport expansion cannot be reconciled.

Co-operative Group environment manager Chris Shearlock said: “We basically looked at DfT figures, the projections for improvements in technology and contrasted these with projections for UK greenhouse gas emissions.”

The DfT forecasts CO2 emissions from UK aviation will total 65 million tonnes a year by 2030. But by 2050, total UK emissions must be no more than 130 million tonnes.

“Even if we assume aviation does not grow from 2030, air travel would still account for about 50% of total emissions in 2050,” said Shearlock.

“These are DfT figures,” he adds. “Willie Walsh and [Ryanair’s] Michael O’Leary can say what they want. They ignore where we are heading.

“If we continue to expand air travel there is no way we can reduce emissions as we need to. The rest of the economy would have to contract to 10% of its current size and I cannot see that is realistic or equitable.”

Shearlock points out DfT figures also show past improvements in technology have cut emissions by only 1%-2% a year, when traffic has grown by at least 5% a year.

He said: “A step change in technology looks unlikely. There is potential for slow incremental improvements in traffic management and lighter aircraft, and we welcome
research into alternative fuels. But this problem is immediate.”

So The Co-operative Travel line, as outlined by Shearlock, is this: “We do not want to stop people taking their annual holiday and we are not saying aviation cannot grow, but it should only be allowed to grow within the range of efficiency improvements.

“The government should enforce maximum passenger and flight numbers.”

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