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Why Heathrow is stuck in a net zero holding pattern

Airliner taking off

The decision not to allow Heathrow to expand on climate grounds challenges the aviation industry to change the way it operates. But it's a challenge the industry can meet, says Hannah Vickers

Last week’s news on Heathrow’s expansion brings into sharp focus some of the discussions we’ll need to be having over the coming years if society’s ambitions on net zero are to be more than a cursory PR exercise. While many in my industry will no doubt be exasperated at yet another delay to a major project, we need to recognise that we are now working in a new world where a broader definition of value is in play – one where a net zero society is as important as economic growth.

The strategic and economic case for Heathrow’s expansion is not under question. Parliament agreed with the Davies Commission that it makes sense to expand London’s capacity and that a third runway at the country’s only hub was the best way of doing so. The court’s ruling is simply recognition that the project’s impact on climate change was not properly assessed when it should have been. I now say let’s allow the project to be looked at in a holistic and scientific way which parks preconceptions, and then let’s have a balanced conversation on how we achieve a net zero Heathrow expansion.

The airport recently shared the impressive news that its operations are on course to become carbon neutral by 2030. It has done this by investing more than £100 million in energy reduction and renewables, which has seen a drop in carbon use of 93 per cent compared to 1990 levels, and in public transport projects. The remaining 7 per cent is to be met with investments in carbon sinks and tree planting projects. This is a remarkable achievement for what is essentially a small city.

Of course, this brings us to the elephant in the room of the flights themselves and the seismic shift this brings to infrastructure appraisal – projects must consider the impacts of the whole system within which they sit, not just on areas within their direct control or scoped at a project level. While its operations have led the way, Heathrow is victim of circumstances over which it has no direct control and is constrained by the pace of change of the aviation industry and airline operators.

"There is no reason why we shouldn’t be able to plan decades ahead where ‘green planes’ are the norm, where everyone arrives to the airport via public transport, and where the airport operates on a net zero basis"

The Committee on Climate Change is clear that the country can meet its net zero ambitions and still support an aviation economy. However, it also states that growth can’t be unlimited and pricing to restrain demand, for example taxes on frequent flyers, may be required. The Sustainable Aviation Coalition, backed by British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Boeing and Airbus, has a commitment to achieve net zero by 2050 through new aircraft and engine technology, verified offsets, carbon pricing as well as smarter flight operation. The aviation industry has decoupled rising demand from emissions growth, so we should all take the sector’s proposals for full net zero seriously.

With long development times, the best infrastructure projects have the future firmly in mind. The court’s decision now means that they also have to have to marry environmental, social and economic issues and deliver value in all areas at the same time. A difficult situation that will require all the ingenuity that our industry is known for, but there is no reason why we shouldn’t be able to plan decades ahead where ‘green planes’ are the norm, where everyone arrives to the airport via public transport, and where the airport operates on a net zero basis.

Certainly, Government has a role to play in all of this. We’re expecting more details of an “infrastructure revolution” in the Budget, but with all large infrastructure projects affected by this decision on Heathrow, how can this be the case? While much has been made of the Chancellor changing fiscal rules to help make it happen (“the green book”), there hasn’t been much said about a change in how Government approaches environmental issues.

As an industry we are doing our bit and as well as ACE’s Net Zero campaign, which will explore how we deliver carbon free buildings and infrastructure, our upcoming sustainability report will explore how a “five capitals” solution – with natural capital alongside financial, manufactured, social and human – can provide a framework for this type of complex decision making.

Whatever the news for the industry at the Budget, it’s clear that we will all need an open mind to understand what Heathrow might look like in 2050. Like most major infrastructure projects before it, we need to make decisions for the world of the future.

Hannah Vickers is chief executive of the Association for Consultancy and Engineering (ACE)

Image | Shutterstock


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