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Report: Government not doing enough to mitigate impact of Heathrow expansion

Words: Laura Edgar
Heathrow airport / Shutterstock_274027481

There has been little sign of a "step change" in the government’s approach to mitigating the environmental impacts of a third runway at Heathrow Airport, say MPs on the Environmental Audit Committee.

A new air quality strategy is urgently required to ensure that airport expansion is not granted at the expense of public health, said MPs.

Further to this, in its report – The Airports Commission report follow-up: Carbon emission, air quality and noise – the committee noted that it is concerned that government has given no guarantees that air quality targets will be maintained after the UK leaves the European Union.

In July 2015, the Airports Commission recommended that expanding runway capacity at Heathrow Airport is the best option, rather than expanding Gatwick Airport.

The government announced its support for a third runway at Heathrow Airport in October last year, and a draft national policy statement for its expansion was published earlier this month (2 February).

MPs are concerned that the government is relying on people swapping to cleaner cars to reduce air pollution but “have no confidence” that this will meets its uptake targets.

The report says the figures used by ministers for the costs and benefits of expansion are based on a hypothetical international framework to reduce emissions, which does yet exist. The figures would leave international aviation emissions 15 per cent higher than the level assumed in the UK’s Fifth Carbon Budge, which runs from 2028-32, said MPs.

Mary Creagh, chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, said: "If the government wants to get Heathrow expansion off the ground it needs to show that a third runway can be built and run without exceeding legal limits on air pollution or breaching our carbon budgets.”

She said the committee has seen little evidence of the “step change” in the government’s approach it has previously called for.

“Worryingly, the government looks set to water down the limits on aviation emissions recommended by its own climate change advisers. That would mean other sectors of the economy, like energy and industry, having to cut their carbon emissions even deeper and faster.

“Mitigating the air quality, carbon and noise impacts of a new runway cannot be an afterthought. Ministers must work harder to show that Heathrow expansion can be done within the UK’s legally binding environmental commitments."

Recommendations in the report include:

  • The government should work with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on an air quality alert system for people who are especially vulnerable to the effects of short-term exposure to pollutants.

  • The government should publish an assessment of the air quality impacts alongside the final national policy statement, which must work towards a scenario where all road links affected by expansion have predicted concentrations below the limit value.

  • The government must publish a comprehensive of the infrastructure requirements of an expanded Heathrow and consult on it before publishing a final national policy statement.

  • The business case for Heathrow expansions must be assessed against a cost/benefit analysis which uses realistic carbon policy assumptions, in line with the government’s aviation strategy, and takes account of the resulting impacts on other airports and other sectors of the economy. These must be the headline figures in future government publications, including the final national policy statement.

  • The government’s aviation strategy should be integrated with the cross-government emissions reduction plan.

  • The government should work with the sector and public to set its priorities. If the government plans to rely on future technical improvement to reduce noise impacts, then it must provide the aviation industry with support by setting a clear strategic direction for the industry and guarantee policy certainty for investment.

The report and a full list of recommendations can be found here.

Image credit | Shutterstock