Why there’s nothing anti green about airport expansion

Darren Caplan

IN RECENT years, a misplaced and damaging idea – that expanding the UK’s airport capacity is environmentally unsustainable – has permeated the public consciousness. Exacerbated by political gridlock on the question of new runways, it’s a myth that needs to be urgently corrected.

As anyone in the UK’s business community will know, export-led growth can only happen if we have strong transport infrastructure. But this growth must, of course, be sustainable. New research published by the Airport Operators Association demonstrates that aviation can expand at the same time as reducing our carbon footprint and managing noise.

Our new report presents a picture that many may find counterintuitive. Between 2010 and 2012, there has been an almost 3 per cent reduction in carbon emissions produced by the UK’s largest airports, at the same time as passenger numbers increased by more than 5 per cent and air traffic by almost 2 per cent.

The methods employed to achieve this reduction vary from airport to airport. At Heathrow, a new biomass energy source is saving 13,000 tonnes of CO2 each year. At Manchester, meanwhile, new smart technology is linking real time flight data to the buildings and to an environmental management system that controls the lighting, heating and cooling in the terminals. This ensures that energy is only used when it’s needed. Our airport members around the country are also providing cleaner on-site energy to aircraft while they are on the ground, and encouraging passengers to use more sustainable ground transport to access the airport.

Airport expansion also has to be sustainable for local populations, in terms of noise. Our research found that, in the past three years, over 5,700 homes have been built or granted planning permission within the noise contours of airports. Yet government aviation policy asks airports to limit and reduce the number of people living inside noise contours: it begs the question of why developers are allowed to introduce thousands of new households into these areas without any national policy to control insulation standards or the specific location of the homes in relation to airports. Airports are working hard with their local communities to find the best ways to deal with noise issues, through insulation schemes such as that at Gatwick.

Research already published by Sustainable Aviation shows that the industry can reduce its carbon emissions to 50 per cent of 2005 levels, without increasing its noise output, by 2050. It is clear that airports are keeping to their side of the bargain. But the government must also play its part: for example, a lot more needs to be done to provide an incentive framework to stimulate investment, research and development into sustainable aviation fuels, which have the potential to create thousands of jobs.

With the Airports Commission recommending that at least one new runway will be required by 2030, there has seldom been a more important time to make the case for sustainable aviation expansion. Our new findings show that this is achievable and that airports are taking their environmental responsibilities seriously. That is good for the environment, for local residents, and ultimately good for the UK.