Environmentalists should work with us to scale up solutions for net-zero aviation, not demonise our expansion - Heathrow
Heathrow's Sustainability and Environment Director writes about progress being made to reduce emissions from aviation through technological improvements and carbon offsetting, including peat bog restoration.
Climate change is an existential challenge for humanity. Every government and business needs to take action. But the idea that a third runway at Heathrow means we won’t solve global climate change is misguided.
Aviation is a force for good in the world. It connects markets and underpins the global economy. It gets aid to those who need it and carries exports from developing countries which lift millions of people out of poverty. It also connects people, enabling us to visit friends and family and learn about our planet’s huge natural and cultural diversity. The enemy is not aviation, but carbon. The science is clear that the world needs to achieve net zero carbon by 2050. Aviation needs to do the same. Responsible hub airports like Heathrow can be anchors for change, using our scale and influence to transform the way the global aviation sector tackles the challenge.
Aviation emissions need to be solved globally. Two years ago, we were delighted that the 191 member states of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) agreed to carbon neutral growth in flights from 2020. But we need to go further. This week, Europe’s airports united to call on our industry and on ICAO to develop a net zero goal and set out how to get there.
The industry’s carbon roadmap shows how this can be achieved. It starts with a multi-billion pound investment in new, fuel efficient aircraft. The next step is to introduce sustainable aviation fuels at scale. They’re proven technologically, now we need to commercialise them. British Airways has just announced investment in its first sustainable jet fuel plant in the UK. At Heathrow our latest annual sustainable innovation prize has been awarded to University College London to research how to convert plastic waste to fuel and we will set out plans to charge less for planes with lower carbon fuels. We now need ICAO to set an ambitious long-term target for uptake of sustainable fuels too.
The next step is zero carbon flight. Ten years ago, zero carbon planes would have seemed impossible. But small electric planes are already flying. Easyjet has teamed up with Wright Electric to develop a battery powered aircraft for flights under two hours. Major aerospace firms are working on electric technology, and start-up companies are piling in. Last year we announced a major innovation prize of free landing for a year for the first commercial electric flight – a prize worth up to £1 million. And through our new “Centre of Excellence for Sustainability”, we’re researching the infrastructure that we will need at the airport.
Until we develop alternatives to jet fuel, carbon offsetting will have a fundamental role to play. It’s become a dirty term, seen as some kind of get-out-of-jail free card. We need to challenge that. Cutting carbon from flights will be more expensive than in other sectors, but people value flying. Let’s make that a positive. Part of the price of aviation’s growth will be investing in emissions cuts elsewhere. The enemy is carbon not aviation. Our collective challenge is to get carbon out of the economy as quickly and cheaply as possible. That’s what offsetting does.
We have chosen to trial the restoration of peatlands as a solution that the aviation sector can invest in. Restoring the UK’s peat bogs could stop the release of 16 million tonnes of carbon a year, a similar amount to all the flights from Heathrow, and assimilate a further 3 million tonnes. This shows how carbon offsetting can deliver real, long-term reductions in carbon (as well as benefits for nature). The UN’s offsetting scheme for international flights will generate up to $40bn of investment between now and 2035. That can make a huge contribution to “natural climate solutions” like peatland and forests. And far from delaying the transition, as Leo suggests, the costs of offsetting will act as an incentive for more radical technological change within the aviation sector.
It’s naïve to pretend that, in an interconnected international network, not building a third runway at Heathrow will stop journeys happening and cut emissions - passengers will simply route via other hubs. That’s not defeatism, it’s realism: in 2018, 16 million passengers connected from the UK to their final destination via one of the twenty-one other hubs in Europe and the middle east. Among Heathrow’s top competitor airports, four have at least four runways and two are planning six runway airports. If people connect via other hubs, only the short-haul flight features in the UK carbon budgets. We’d be sitting here sanctimoniously congratulating ourselves for cutting carbon when we’d just exported it. Not expanding Heathrow to solve global climate change really would be sacrificing the UK’s world-leading global connectivity, with all the benefits that brings, on the altar of some pretty ineffective green credentials.
Ask anyone in the global aviation industry, and they will tell you that it is UK airlines and airports that are leading the sector in tackling climate change. My call to UK environmentalists is to work with us to scale up the solutions for net-zero aviation, rather than taking succour from the comfortingly familiar, but globally futile, demonisation of Heathrow.