Heathrow expansion offers much more than a new runway. It is part of a new era of airport design and function, argues Back Heathrow executive director Parmjit Dhanda
The proposed new runway project is the biggest privately funded infrastructure project in Europe. So, unsurprisingly, there are numerous hoops it must jump through before the first plane can take off. Few doubt the benefits of the 180,000 jobs the project will create – the scheme’s critics have focussed their concerns on the impacts of noise and air pollution. As someone who grew up close to the airport I can relate to those concerns.
However, it is important to remember that aviation has moved on a great deal in recent years. In terms of noise, aircraft are now quieter, less polluting and improving year-on-year. Although the number of aircraft using Heathrow has doubled since the 1970s, the number of people affected by noise has reduced by 90 per cent.
You need to drill in to the detail to understand the issues around air pollution. Road vehicles unrelated to the airport are the principle contributors of local air pollution, not the aircraft. Studies conducted with forty pollution sensors in and around the airport show that the roads surrounding Heathrow, including the M25/M4 junction and the M4, are among the worst offenders in the land. Road vehicles produce dangerous NOx and CO2 emissions but wherever it comes from, it still needs to be tackled. Heathrow already ticks the boxes to enable expansion under European Union emissions rules, but that is not enough to say, ‘job done’.
So how do you sustainably grow an airport?
The first step is to work with a respected expert to find new solutions, someone like Tony Juniper, the former executive director of Friends of the Earth. That is exactly what Heathrow did. With Juniper’s input, a strategy with real impact was produced, a strategy which can change the way all airports look at their impact on their neighbourhoods.
Heathrow now aims to make the airport carbon neutral by 2050 and it has already achieved its target of being 100 per cent powered by renewable electricity. By 2020, Heathrow will convert its vehicle fleet to either electric or plug-in hybrid.
But if you are serious about protecting the environment whilst expanding aviation (and de facto growing the economy) then you must go beyond the environs of your locality. There is much more that will need to be done before Heathrow expansion convinces all its critics.
Good planning makes a big difference. For many years the airport has needed better public transport links. Major transport infrastructure projects like Crossrail, Western Rail access, HS2, new Southern access and major improvements to the Piccadilly line will help to ensure that in the future over half of all journeys to Heathrow will be by public transport.
Perhaps Juniper’s biggest influence on Heathrow has been on its involvement in a plan to restore peatlands to offset its carbon. Peatlands cover 12 per cent of the United Kingdom, of which 80 per cent are in poor condition. As well as putting one of world’s busiest airports on a path to carbon neutrality, the peatlands restoration project will have real benefits for wildlife.
Heathrow will not win over every critic of expansion, but by involving serious environmentalists it is showing a path towards a greener world of aviation which other airports can follow.
Parmjit Dhanda is executive director of Back Heathrow. He tweets at @ParmjitDhanda
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