Cutting Carbon, but at What Cost?United States
New York Times
Britain’s new coalition government won plaudits from environmentalists in May for canceling plans to build a third runway at Heathrow Airport, a move it said was necessary to check the growth of an industry whose emissions are a big contributor to global warming.
But with the number of flights and airports on the rise in most parts of the world, it is far from clear whether Prime Minister David Cameron’s move will be the start of a broader international effort to curb one of the fastest-growing sources of greenhouse gases, or a symbolic but isolated act.
Emissions from aviation are particularly damaging because they occur at high altitudes, but they are unregulated by the Kyoto Protocol or any other international agreement, and few governments have shown an appetite for limiting flights. The industry says it is getting greener with gains in efficiency and warns that Mr. Cameron’s decision will drain money from London’s economy. They say Britain’s role as a gateway to continental Europe and beyond will be jeopardized, just as new competitors are emerging in the Middle East.
The fight over a new runway for overcrowded Heathrow had dragged on for years, and Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s government announced last year that the project would go forward. Unlike the battles that occur everywhere when airports are built or expanded, this one focused not only on local concerns like noise and air quality, but also on the climate-damaging emissions of the airline industry.
The environmental group Greenpeace says Britons, who have developed a taste in recent years for quick weekend flights to the Continent, emit more from flying than people in any other country. That, they argue, is incompatible with a commitment enshrined in law to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050.
Had the third runway been built, Greenpeace says, flights could have taken up Britain’s entire 2050 carbon budget, meaning all other parts of the economy would have had to reduce emissions to zero for the country to meet its target.
“Decisions taken now, like the third runway for example, were going to start locking us into a massive expansion” of aviation, said Anna Jones, a climate campaigner at the environmental group. “It’s a huge moment, not just for Heathrow but for all policies that government makes,” since it may signal a commitment to ensure that all future official decisions are consistent with the carbon-cutting requirement.
Ms. Jones said that while air travel accounted for 7 percent to 8 percent of the developed world’s emissions — a figure the industry disputes — its real effect is about double that, because the emissions are released at altitude. To contain the problem, the number of flights must start to drop unless aircraft manufacturers can produce big gains in efficiency or new, cleaner technologies, she argued.
“There is going to be increasing pressure on the aviation industry to cut its emissions,” said Tony Bosworth, a climate change activist at the environmental group Friends of the Earth. “We need to look to a day where people are not flying within the U.K., where people are not flying from London to Paris, or London to Amsterdam, or London to Brussels, where those journeys are automatically made by train instead of by plane.”
Government must make alternatives like train travel easier and cheaper, he said. That is something Mr. Cameron’s government hopes to do with a planned high-speed rail line that may eventually link London to Scotland, with a connection to Heathrow.
British air passenger taxes, meant to require carriers to shoulder part of the cost of their environmental impact, have risen to as much as £110, or $170, for the longest flights leaving the country in business class, and are scheduled to jump again in November, to a top rate of £170. Environmentalists would like to see a per-plane tax instead of a charge for each passenger, something Mr. Cameron’s government is considering. Germany has also announced plans for a new aviation tax.
The industry says such measures will damage the economies of countries imposing them, and it has said that Britain will suffer from Mr. Cameron’s decision on Heathrow, which also included a promise not to add runways at the London area’s other big airports, Gatwick and Stansted.
The decision comes as European airports that aspire to capture some of Heathrow’s traffic are expanding and new competitors are emerging elsewhere, particularly in Middle Eastern cities like Dubai; Abu Dhabi; and Doha, Qatar.
“It’s much larger than just slipping behind Frankfurt or Paris,” said John Strickland, a London-based aviation consultant. Airports are being built in China, and new flights connecting the Middle East, Asia, Latin America and Africa are undermining Europe’s primacy as a hub, he said. “While other people are getting on and exploiting these global trends, which go really to the widest aspects of the economy, Britain is already slipping behind.”
A trend toward nonstop flights on routes that used to require connections has also hit Heathrow, which has long been a stopover point for travelers from the United States to Continental Europe, South Asia and the Middle East, said Sandy Rederer, an aviation expert at OAG Aviation, a Washington consulting firm.
The number of seats on flights leaving London airports fell 16 percent from 2001 to 2010, compared with a 14 percent increase for Frankfurt and a 56 percent jump for Madrid, two airports that have recently been expanded, Mr. Rederer said. This month, Beijing International Airport bumped Heathrow from second place to third on OAG’s list of the world’s busiest airports, ranked by seat capacity. Hartsfield-Jackson International in Atlanta remains at the top of the list.
Advocates of the third runway argue that stopping Heathrow’s growth will not reduce global carbon emissions, but just shift them elsewhere, while making Britain an economic loser. Mr. Strickland said that he worried that a political climate that cast aviation as an environmental villain would damage the sector in ways that Britons would come eventually to regret.
The industry says it is being singled out unfairly. It estimates that its greenhouse gas emissions are only 2 percent of the global total. It also argues that continuing improvements in efficiency and the eventual emergence of new technologies should enable flying to be part of a low-carbon world.
Environmentalists are skeptical of such claims and say any efficiency gains are likely to be outweighed by the continued expansion of flying, which even in the economic downturn has posted recent growth everywhere but in North America. Ms. Jones, of Greenpeace, said that talk of an easy technological fix from the industry has so far been “a lot of aspiration and hope in something that hasn’t been invented yet.”
While Mr. Cameron’s decision was disappointing to Heathrow’s owner, BAA, and the industry, the airport is likely to remain one of the world’s busiest for many years, Mr. Rederer said.
“There is a trend of more growth in other places, but Heathrow is not shrinking by any means and is going to be a very important part of world aviation for a long time,” he said. “Obviously, it would be bigger with another runway, but it’s still very big and going to remain that way.”
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