Plans for a third runway at Heathrow got the go-ahead from the transport secretary, Geoff Hoon today, despite the barrage of opposition on environmental grounds from environmentalists, scientists, MPs, celebrities and local residents.

(Source: John Stillwell/PA Wire

(Credit: John Stillwell/PA Wire)

At full capacity, an expanded Heathrow (expected by 2020) would become the biggest single source of C02 emissions in the country; emitting nearly 27m tonnes of CO2 every year – equivalent to the emissions of 57 of the least polluting countries in the world combined. The new runway will add an estimated 400 flights a day, increasing annual passenger numbers through the airport from 66 million to around 82 million.

Hoon stressed that the expansion of Heathrow is justified on economic grounds and will be essential for future economic growth, and attracting international investment to the UK. However, in order to appease the growing opposition from environmental campaigners and over 50 Labour MPs, Hoon announced the a package of environmental conditions, restricting BAA from using the new runway at full capacity, which it had originally consulted for. However, environmental campaigners brandished these efforts as simple greenwash.


Proposed Environmental Safeguards

–   The third runway will operate at half its capacity when it opens in 2020, raising the total number of flights from 480,000 to 600,000, rather than the 702,000 intended

–   Aircraft using the new runway will have to meet strict GHG emission standards

–   Total carbon emissions from UK aviation must fall below 2005 levels by 2050

Hoon added that the government was satisfied environmental targets could be met, as it would put an initial cap on additional flights from the new runway of 125,000, would ensure new slots were “green slots” used by only the least polluting planes and would set a new target on aircraft emissions – that they would be lower in 2050 than in 2005.

Protests at Heathrow Airport earlier this week. Source: Dominic Rowland

Protests at Heathrow Airport earlier this week. Source: Dominic Rowland

“This gives us the toughest climate change regime for aviation anywhere in the world,” said Hoon. Such

 sentiments on the imminent challenge of meeting the UK’s legally binding target for 80% CO2 emissions reduction by 2050 have been raised by many and were also echoed by Prime Minister Gordon Brown. At a recent press conference held in Berlin, he said that he wanted to “protect the economic future of the country while, at the same time, meeting the very tough environmental conditions we have set ourselves”.

However, many feel this decision reflects the government’s hypocrisy on the climate change debate, arguing that the environmental safeguards don’t go far enough. Campaigners from Friends of the Earth highlighted that the expansion will make the UK’s climate change targets virtually impossible to meet, as the airport will see a 70% increase in passengers by 2030.

In addition, plans for investments in a high speed rail network to link major UK cities to this major ‘hub’ airport were unveiled, amongst talks of opening up hard shoulders on some of the UK’s major motorways to ease congestion in the meantime.

While the PM believes that such an infrastructure project is crucial for the UK during this recession period, it is strongly opposed by the Tories. Shadow transport secretary Theresa Villiers criticized government’s environmental promises, labeling them “…not worth the paper they are written on” and said her party would cancel the project if they win the next general election.

Jonathon Porritt, chair of the government’s Sustainable Development Commission, was horrified by the decision and said, “This is very regrettable decision ignoring the fact that government does not have the data about the economic benefits and has not done a proper assessment of the impacts and on its climate change targets. It does not add up.

Strong local concern was highlighted by London Mayor Boris Johnson and over 20 London local authorities, representing more than 2 million people. The airport will also see the demolition of Sipson village, including one school and over 700 houses, exposing further schools and houses to noise and air pollution.

Meanwhile, a host of celebrities, including Oscar winning actress Emma Thompson, and Alastair McGowan partnered with Greenpeace to sign the deeds of a peace of land ear-marked by BAA to build the third runway; in an attempt to severely delay the planning applications for this controversial development.

What remains to be seen now is whether emissions reduction targets are also ‘loosened’ by the Committee on Climate Change and Ed Milliband’s team to help the government meet the carbon reduction targets, despite the additional 27m tones (approx) of CO2 a year the expansion will add.

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