ITC considers the environmental case for Heathrow expansion

Is there an environmental case for expansion at Heathrow?

The Occasion

Award-winning journalist Adam Raphael chaired a panel comprising Sir David King of Oxford University’s Smith School for Enterprise and the Environment, Colin Matthews, Chief Executive of BAA, and Jim Steer, founder of Greengauge21, who addressed an audience comprising leading representatives from industry, the air sector, academics and environmental groups.


Is there an environmental case for a third runway at Heathrow? This was the question faced by key opinion makers at a new forum hosted by the Independent Transport Commission on Tuesday 13 April. The discussion evening included representatives from more than 30 leading organisations.

Surprisingly, there was general consensus that Heathrow offered the most viable option as the UK’s air transport hub. Although its location was far from ideal, none of the other London airports had such excellent infrastructure connectivity, and a Thames Estuary airport island would require massive local infrastructure development and investment in new transport connections.

Heathrow and the Environment – key issues raised by the speakers:

  • Air travel brings significant social and economic benefits. We should focus on improving its environmental impact.
  • The Air Industry will continue to respond to environmental challenges in the long term. Passenger aircraft have a long lifespan, and technological advances in aircraft design, which improve fuel efficiency and reduce noise, will continue to be realised in the medium to long term. However, the special requirements of aviation mean that aircraft will continue to rely on petroleum-based fuel for the time being. Aircraft contribute 2% of European CO2 emissions, but this proportion will increase.
  • There are policies the air industry could adopt to reduce CO2 emissions in the short term. These include more gradual rises and falls in aircraft flight patterns, reduced stacking of aircraft waiting to land, more efficient international air traffic control arrangements and airport infrastructure improvements to reduce emissions from service and ground transport.
  • A Third Runway at Heathrow will need to address environmental problems other than climate change. The key environmental issues at stake are disruption to local residents, noise pollution and local air quality issues, especially nitrous oxide emissions.
  • It is possible that a Third Runway will contribute towards reduced CO2 emissions within the air industry, pending further investigation of the figures. First, the runway could reduce stacking of aircraft as a result of reduced congestion at the airport. Second, the runway could boost Heathrow’s capacity to service long-haul destinations, with the result that more passengers would fly directly to their destinations instead of connecting through airports such as Amsterdam and Frankfurt. This would mean fewer landings and take-offs and shorter journeys, and therefore reduced fuel consumption. The ‘low carbon emissions’ solution would put the best connected hub closest to London, the largest aviation market.
  • The provision of a High Speed Rail hub at Heathrow would result in some transfer of mode from air to rail, affecting journeys of less than 4 hours duration. It will also bring to Heathrow passengers who otherwise would have taken connecting flights through Paris, Amsterdam, or Frankfurt. By ensuring that Heathrow was better connected to cities in the Midlands and North, a further environmental benefit of a High Speed Rail hub at Heathrow would be to encourage airport commuters and travelers to switch from car to rail, with a dramatic reduction in carbon use, and improved local air quality from lower nitrous oxide emissions. The provision of a rail hub would also ensure that Heathrow was better connected to cities in the Midlands and North and so reduce the need for connecting flights.
  • The environmental case for a Third Runway was at its most persuasive if the target were to limit stacking, and if it were accompanied by a cap on the number of flights. This would need to be driven by a move away from the philosophy of maximizing capacity that underpins present transport policy. As one speaker suggested: ‘we need to invest in and build infrastructure in this country and, then, under use it’.

Discussion Outcomes

  • Britain needs to have an air transport hub. Consideration was given to whether the UK could be served by multiple hubs, but given the geographical scale of the nation and its population distribution the general consensus was that only one hub was necessary. It was noted that more research was needed on the consequences of losing the UK’s only major air hub at Heathrow. Participants suggested that Paris Charles de Gaulle airport was likely to be the chief beneficiary of this outcome.
  • We should consider whether there are any feasible alternatives to Heathrow as the key air transport hub in Britain. Most responses expressed the view that although far from an ideal location, Heathrow remained the most sensible choice, given the large infrastructure that it supported in West London, the advanced state of its existing facilities, its current connections to London Underground, the motorway network, and Paddington rail station, and its suitability as a High Speed Rail hub with connections to the North and West of the UK.
  • Concern was relayed at the socio-economic consequences of using Heathrow as a key transport hub. It was noted that air travel is dominated by higher income groups and business travellers. Heathrow mainly serves the needs of London and the South-East of England, and expansion should not come at the expense of provision at local airports, which are often key connectivity points for provincial cities. It was made clear that when making policy the requirements of the only UK air hub should be separated from those of local airports. BAA will need to work closely on any expansion of Heathrow with key local stakeholders and engineers, especially to mitigate the resulting increase in road traffic. Such integrated transport planning would be necessary to improve air quality in the wider Heathrow area.
  • High Speed Rail travel must be priced equitably to attract a wide variety of commuters. It was noted that the current demand management system used in the rail industry, where customers are disproportionately rewarded for booking ahead, would not be suitable. Lessons should be taken from the success of the Paris Charles de Gaulle rail station, which offered TGV through services from the North to the South of the country.
  • Airline industry representatives noted that they took climate change seriously, and supported the introduction of a carbon emissions trading scheme. This had the advantage of a directly targeted outcome for carbon limits, as well as ensuring that the air industry paid directly for the cost of their carbon footprint. In contrast, government attempts to penalize air travelers with punitive taxes achieved neither of these outcomes. Scepticism was expressed that a carbon trading scheme would ever emerge given the obstacles faced at Copenhagen. In response, it was noted that aviation would be joining the existing European scheme in 2012, and that the current low and ineffectual price of permits should rise as the global economic recovery took hold.
  • Finally, the question was raised whether future generations would still be as interested in air travel as we are today. It was possible to foresee a scenario where the development of new media, and novel forms of communication, would dampen our desire to journey into the skies and remove the future need for a fourth runway.