Environmental concerns outweigh airport expansion in UK…so why not here?

7 07 2010

Even as most sectors of industry face ever increasing regulation about emissions and environmental safeguarding, one growth industry continues to send emissions levels skyrocketing. It is to be applauded that manufacturing and assembly plants, steel mills and mining operations are under far more scrutiny than before but in the midst of that the seemingly endless upward spiral of air traffic threatens to become a global percentage leader in air pollutants. Currently contributing perhaps 3% to all emissions; in growing and smaller nations these ratios run as high as 10-15% of all emissions.

In a fairly bold but critically observed strategy Britain’s new coalition government has made steps to reduce the growth of air traffic by refusing to build additional runways around London to accommodate more planes. Within a week of being elected Prime Minister David Cameron reversed existing plans to expand Heathrow Airport with a new and greatly needed third runway. Targeting airliners CO2 emissions the leader also promised to deny applications to expand services via runway construction at either Gatwick or Stansted; the other airports that serve London and the Southeast of the UK.

Should governments make decisions as bold as this even when they fly in the face of commerce and demand? Can regulation of air traffic expansion be enforced or will this just force those who wish to travel by air to simply choose an alternate location to begin or end their journey?

The UK Government both past and present have been promising radical success in curbing emissions and as such felt targeting airport expansion would be low hanging fruit. The UK has been at the heart of low fares carriers growth within Europe, its far less expensive to fly to a Mediterranean resort than take a train a few hundred miles within Britain. As a result the British take more flights per capita than any nation in Europe. This naturally doesn’t balance with Britain’s goal to cut 1990 emissions by at least 34 percent by 2020. Teresa Villiers, Britain’s minister of state for transport:

“The emissions were a significant factor. The 220,000 or so flights that might well come with a third runway would make it difficult to meet the targets we’d set for ourselves.”

What Britain is trying is unfortunately not the way of the world by any means as throughout the other major air markets there is a race to add runways, rebuild terminals and do all possible to increase passenger and freight traffic alike. Heathrow already handles the most international passengers of any airport in the world and the 5th most overall and the expansion was seen as being critical. Other rapidly growing airports such as Chicago-O’Hare, Seattle-Tacoma and Washington-Dulles all opened new runways in the last few years, while brand new airports are being built in many Asian cities.  In addition to the CO2 emissions attention should turn to the ground and noise pollution that go hand in hand with a busy airport. Heathrow is remarkably small with just two runways, which lead to delays and congestion which further hamper the operations. Critics are leaping on the decision who say this discourages commerce and will greatly harm business in the UK. It does bring back the discussion of just how can needed environmental changes and restrictions work best in concert with a healthy economy. The results of this decision around airport expansion might serve as a blueprint for how best to manage such a scenario. The UK estimates that 6% of emissions are caused by aircraft and failure to lower the trend could see this figure reach 25% over the next 20 years. While those ratios are perhaps unique to Britain and a few other countries its easy to see why such a decision had to be made.

Perhaps what troubles me most….I can’t see a similar decision being made in the United States any time soon. Concessions to business are always placed ahead of the planet which is the definition of short term thinking and we should be ashamed of our politicians.






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