SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 205 February 2017

Heathrow emissions set to take off

Last year was the hottest ever recorded. Temperature rises went beyond a 1°C increase from pre-industrial levels for the first time, and Arctic ice continued to melt at a record rate. Against this background, the government gave the go-ahead for the expansion of Heathrow airport, with the construction of a new runway. This will lead to a big increase in aviation greenhouse gas emissions, as the number of flights increases by 50%. Flights already account for 15% of total greenhouse gas output in the UK, so this will lead to a big increase in this figure. According to data from the International Energy Agency, on current projections, adding a new runway at Heathrow would mean 3.9 million tonnes more carbon dioxide by 2050, approximately 10% of present levels.

Approval of Heathrow’s third runway could also give a green light to aviation expansion generally, including a new runway at Birmingham, pushing up pollution even more. The House of Commons Committee on Climate Change projects that with unrestrained airport expansion aviation demand could grow by 200% in 2050. Apart from the climate danger, many local residents are also protesting about the damage to the immediate environment, while 750 homes around Heathrow will be demolished and 3,000 more will be deemed as too noisy to live in. Air quality, already way above air pollution limits, will get even worse.

In 2008, Theresa May said that a new runway at Heathrow would undermine climate targets. The position of her Tory government now is that a rise in aviation greenhouse gas emissions can be compatible with meeting current overall emission targets, if there are cuts of 80% from all other sources by 2050. The government also says that future economic growth and jobs depend on a third runway. They want to see London as a major hub of the world globalisation project – just as neoliberal globalisation is collapsing under its own contradictions.

A series of experts has questioned whether there is any prospect of 80% cuts in overall greenhouse gas emissions. Dr Doug Parr, Greenpeace UK’s chief scientist, said that the "government believes a new runway at Heathrow can be delivered within UK carbon obligations. Nobody who understands think so". Professor Joanna Haigh, co-director of the renowned Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment, has said that expansion at Heathrow or any other airport will create a serious obstacle to the UK meeting its greenhouse gas targets. At the moment, there is no sign of any serious movement towards the massive 80% cut in emissions required by the Tories to make the figures stack up.

Many greens say that air travel must be curtailed, if not banned entirely as part of a drive to discourage travel in general, as an essential requirement for a future sustainable world. Some green socialists might agree with this. However, we need to encourage international links and travel to underpin the cooperation needed to build socialism, a system that can only work on a cooperative, international basis. Curtailing the possibility of the travel of peoples, particularly the poorest, despite the good intentions of some of its advocates, would be divisive. But can travel be compatible with tackling global warming? In particular, can we continue the extensive use of air travel?

It is true that aviation emissions in the industrialised countries are a very significant portion of the total figure. In Britain, as mentioned, it is 15%. But overall, the figure is only 2% on a world scale, because the great majority of the world’s population never board an aircraft. For technical reasons, the 2% figure underestimates the impact on the environment. It could be nearly twice this in terms of driving global warming but, nevertheless, it is still a relatively small figure. If all other greenhouse gas emissions were eliminated, a figure of even 4% for aviation emissions could be manageable in terms of addressing the threat of global warming, in theory.

Not least because of the need to promote international solidarity, there must be scope for increases in travel by the poorest people, who cannot presently afford to fly. To accommodate this without threatening to reignite global warming, alternatives will have to be developed to air transportation for many types of journeys, because there are limited possibilities at present for using new technology to increase the efficiency of air travel.

Only relatively small improvements can be made in fuel efficiency, by developing lightweight structural materials and more efficient engines. Although necessary, this will be insufficient to address the problem. In the long term, carbon neutral air transport could become a reality by using non-polluting fuels such as hydrogen, but very significant work will need to be done to make this safe.

Using present technology, most short and medium distance air travel could be replaced by trains. For example, almost a quarter of flights from Heathrow are to destinations less than 500km away, and are accessible by train. There is already an extensive high-speed train network in western Europe. That could be expanded. At the moment, high-speed trains cannot compete on price with budget airlines, which received hidden subsidies from many local authorities to set up their operations. If subsidies were introduced, there would be a very rapid switchover. The potential has been seen by the introduction of the high-speed service between London and Paris, where trains now take the vast majority of the market. (This does not mean, of course, that blanket approval should be given to any proposed high-speed train scheme, such as the HS2 London to Birmingham line. The emissions benefits of this are dubious, and local communities must have a right to object to badly thought out or under resourced schemes that damage the local environment.)

If high-speed networks were developed and expanded, particularly throughout Europe and North America, and replaced short and medium haul air travel, this would have a major impact on reducing aviation greenhouse gas emissions. If this was done, it could be possible to continue with long-distance intercontinental air travel, while still addressing the urgent need to tackle global warming. In the longer term, magnetic levitation type surface transport systems can replace long distance, non-trans-ocean air transport, since travel is possible at up to 500mph. There are no significant technical barriers – a system is already operational in China.

The key points of a socialist programme for sustainable long distance transport would include the following. Expand and subsidise existing high-speed rail networks to replace short and medium distance air travel. Develop international, ultra-high-speed surface transport systems that will replace much long distance air travel. Power all surface transport systems from renewable energy sources. Research non-polluting energy sources for aircraft engines. Establish a publically owned, democratically run, integrated, sustainable transport system. Nationalise the transport and energy generating industries.

There is no sign that the British government, or any other around the world, is willing or able to seriously address the environmental problems posed by air travel. The Tories say that Heathrow expansion is essential to create jobs, but implementing a socialist programme could create many more. The points above cannot be realised in the framework of a profit-driven capitalist system. They can only be achieved with democratic planning in a socialist economy.

Pete Dickenson

Figures from the Greenpeace and Carbon Brief websites

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