Policy schizophrenia

When the government published its consultation papers on Heathrow expansion just over a year ago, we called its proposals for a third runway and a sixth terminal an unprecedented environmental challenge (ENDS Report 395, pp 30-33 ).

Now, in the face of furious opposition, the Cabinet has decided to go ahead (p 6  ). It is urging Heathrow’s owner BAA to get a move on with lodging its application for planning permission.

The Transport Secretary’s long-awaited, twice-delayed announcement to the Commons was swathed in greenery or greenwash, depending on your point of view.

A new high-speed railway line which might be built one day, and might connect to Heathrow. More money for electric cars. Tougher environmental standards for aircraft using the extra slots. Guarantees that more flights will only be allowed if air quality and noise standards are met around the huge airport.

There is even a new target, albeit a very long-range one, for bringing UK aviation emissions back down to their 2005 level by 2050. But it is a target which has no bearing on the current decision. The new infrastructure will obliterate a village, concrete over green belt land and - whatever the government claims - increase the sum of noise annoyance.

Expansion will increase Heathrow’s greenhouse gas emissions by at least a million tonnes a year. Yet the Climate Change Committee has just recommended we should be cutting overall UK emissions by at least 40 million tonnes per annum.

The government says the extra emissions generated by a much bigger Heathrow will be compensated for by cuts elsewhere, since aviation is soon to be included within the EU emissions trading scheme.

"Recent slower growth [in air passenger numbers] is a short term result," says the Department for Transport’s latest air traffic forecast. "We should expect a return to growth once economic growth picks up again."

Heathrow’s expansion is all about handling rapid and sustained increases in flying. The recession has wiped that out for now, bringing a fall in flights. But the government is planning for rapid growth to resume.

This is policy schizophrenia, incompatible with any serious aspiration to cut overall UK greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. The government should be developing policies for constraining demand growth and promoting alternatives to flying such as videoconferencing.

Despite all the green trimmings, Mr Hoon’s decision is very bad environmental news. There is only one worse idea around; Boris Johnson’s plan for a big new airport in the Thames Estuary.

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