London's Heathrow Airport will get a third runway. Is this a good thing?

airport protesters
CC BY 2.0 HACAN/ protesting Heathrow third runway

Environmentalists have been fighting the proposal for a third runway at London’s Heathrow Airport for over a decade. There are many reasons to object to it, including noise, demolition of 700 houses, and air pollution. It has been a political football for years, with the last Conservative government scrapping it. However British Prime Minister Theresa May has announced that it will, in fact, be built. The Department of Transport gleefully announced:

“In a major boost for the UK economy the government today announced its support for a new runway at Heathrow – the first full-length runway in the south-east since the second world war.”

The former mayor of London, Boris Johnson, said he would lie in front of the bulldozers to stop this (a lot of people are hoping he keeps his word and are volunteering to drive them). The current Mayor of London objects, noting that “A new runway at Heathrow will be devastating for air quality across London – air pollution around the airport is already above legal levels of NO2.” The man he beat to become mayor, Zac Goldsmith, resigned from the party in protest. They are all complaining about local noise and air pollution and would be mostly happy if it was just built somewhere else further away, like at Gatwick Airport.

third runway© Airports Commission via BBC

But others think that it is a bigger issue, a global rather than local one, and that we shouldn’t be building more airports at all. George Monbiot notes that “the correct question is not where, it is whether. And the correct answer is no”

While most sectors can replace fossil fuels with other sources, this is not the case for aviation. The airline companies seek to divert us with a series of mumbo-jumbo jets, mythical technologies never destined for life beyond the press release. Solar passenger planes, blended wing bodies, hydrogen jets, algal oils, other biofuels: all are either technically impossible, commercially infeasible, worse than fossil fuels or capable of making scarcely a dent in emissions.

Aviation means kerosene. Using kerosene to hoist human bodies into the air means massive impacts. Improvements in the fuel economy of aircraft have declined to 1% a year or less, greatly outstripped by the growth in aviation. So other means must be found of trying to make it fit.

Monbiot proposes that we should all fly less, which is a definite moderation of his position of a few years ago that we shouldn’t fly at all. But he suggests that we should pay a lot more, with a big carbon tax. He also makes the valid point that just 15 percent of the population take 70 percent of the flights, and that they tend to be significantly richer than average, so that if governments are committed to reducing their carbon footprints, not cutting the amount of flying around that’s done is fundamentally unjust to everyone else who has to cut back more.

Even the most ardent environmentalists recognize that flying is necessary and even desirable. TreeHugger Mat put it best:

There are non-carbon benefits to travel that, though they cannot be compared directly, are great and worthwhile. From traveling to support progressive action, to visit relatives, to just purposeful and life-enriching wandering, there is more to life than carbon emissions. (Yes, I said it, heresy as that may seem to some.)

But it doesn’t have to be so easy, so close to the city, so loud and so polluting. We don’t have to do it so often. And maybe we don’t need to keep building runways where people don’t want them.

London's Heathrow Airport will get a third runway. Is this a good thing?
Perhaps we shouldn't be building more of these when there are low-carbon alternatives to flying.

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