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The Heathrow decision doesn’t hurt global Britain, but it does help the planet

There’s a very clear reason why the Appeals Court believes a third runway at Heathrow is contrary to our obligations under the Paris Climate Accord. Under that agreement we committed to a 40 percent reduction on 1990 carbon levels by 2030 – ten years from now. Aviation may account for only 6 percent of our carbon emissions, but that’s doubled since 1990. Heathrow’s expansion would have increased the airport’s capacity by more than 60 percent, clearly accelerating the airline industry further away from those 2030 targets. How could a court draw any other conclusion?

‘But this is a challenge to democracy’, we’re told by those media outlets who see the court system as the enemy of the people. It’s ‘plane wrong’ according to the super soar away Sun, which asks, ‘WHO runs Britain? Eco-campaigners and activist judges? Or our elected politicians?’ Their argument is that if we don’t radically increase our airport capacity, we’ll watch businesses and jobs disappear across the channel.

They’re not right, of course. If the plan is to loosen our ties to Europe for the sake of more business with the US and, er, other places, then surely we just need to adjust the traffic make-up out of Heathrow. Here’s how.

It won’t surprise you in the slightest that, given our proximity, most flights from Heathrow go to Europe. A scan of the departures board for Monday tells me that 330 of the 640 flights leaving Heathrow head to Europe. A further 111 are bound for North America – almost double the number of domestic flights from Heathrow. If we wanted to shift the balance to reflect the new global Britain, without increasing the number of slots at Heathrow, then we could double flights to the US, whilst losing a third of the flights to Europe.

There’s the argument that if we don’t expand, then Amsterdam or Paris will assume the mantle of the major hub airport for the region. In other words, Americans bound for continental Europe wouldn’t transit through Heathrow. Bad news for the private operators of Heathrow Airport, but if the passengers are not leaving the airport to spend money in our local economy, who cares? The loss of flights to a Schipol hub would be rejoiced by those suffering increasing aircraft noise over western London. Besides, the Dutch and FRench are bound by the same Paris agreement on carbon reduction,

Heathrow’s role as a hub is in decline anyway, as the number of direct flights increases. Heathrow currently serves 217 destinations. Some international arrivals might transit to UK domestic flights, but the numbers are small. Total domestic travel accounts for just 400 thousand of Heathrow’s 7 million passengers each month and most of that is point to point traffic.

Passenger numbers are pretty meaningless, of course, when we talk about global Britain. A bigger factor is the trade in goods, much of which currently transits by road and ship to and from Europe. Cargo traffic through Heathrow – 1.6 million metric tonnes last year – has been steadily on the slide, and that’s predominantly traffic to North America and Asia Pacific. 2019 was 7 percent down on the year before. Cargo between us and the rest of the EU is only 6 percent of the total, and it fell 17 percent last year. Declining numbers provide little reasoning for expanding freight capacity. We just need to stop the downward trend. No extra runway needed.

Heathrow Airport has said it will challenge the court ruling even if the government won’t. They’ve said they intend to show how they can offset the carbon footprint from the expansion. Really?

Heathrow Airport’s Carbon Strategy is outlined on their website:

“Since 2018 we’ve offset emissions to be carbon neutral for the energy used in our terminals. We are committed to work towards zero carbon emissions from our terminals and fixed infrastructure by 2050 at the latest, and to work with our partners to deliver zero emissions at the airport”.

Do you get the sense they are missing the point? Perhaps they can offset the energy used to maintain their infrastructure, but do they seriously expect they can offset the impact of 270,000 extra flights per year? Perhaps they need to go back and re-read the court ruling.

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