Britain and Europe’s largest airport is not the most obvious target for an eco-friendly rebranding. Yet Heathrow Airport recently unveiled a new sustainability strategy, Heathrow 2.0, to counter growing opposition to its expansion plans.
Both the government and an independent Airports Commission have backed proposals to construct a new third runway at London’s largest airport hub. But the plans remain highly contested, with ongoing concerns about noise pollution, air quality and rising carbon emissions. Heathrow expansion has become an emblematic issue in the fight against climate change.
At first glance, it is tempting to dismiss the launch of Heathrow 2.0 as yet another attempt at greenwashing. Indeed, those in favour of the new runway have made sustained efforts to depoliticise the issue ever since the 2010-2015 coalition government declared its ambition to put the environment and local well-being ahead of Heathrow’s growth. An airport that exists above politics gives the illusion that no one has to choose between planes and pollution.
In fact, the current plans to render its new runway carbon neutral echo the failed policy of “sustainable aviation” under the New Labour government. This strategy was quickly discredited by scientists and environmentalists, because of its “cake and eat it” narrative, in which we could fly more and still cope with rising carbon emissions.
Nonetheless, such arguments pepper Heathrow’s new vision for corporate social responsibility. Much is made of the expected benefits of new technologies and innovations, the role of increased connectivity in creating jobs, the enjoyment we gain from the social benefits of flying, and the commitment to carbon offsetting schemes to address rising emissions. Heathrow 2.0 even aspires to “‘decouple’ aviation growth from climate change” – a key pillar of the ideology of sustainable aviation.
Yet Heathrow’s strategy at least engages with the idea of sustainable development, through what it calls “responsibility”. It promises to improve its practices as an employer, committing to a London Living Wage, and it pledges to put an end to human and wildlife trafficking. It wants to produce a “zero-carbon airport” with reduced emissions and “polluter pays” policies. Heathrow 2.0 might even satisfy local demands for better noise protection.
But it’s the detail that really matters. In important respects, the plans lack clarity and ambition. Strategic priorities like a “noise envelope” to cap the overall disturbance emanating from the airport are often stated, but not accompanied with clear targets. Similarly, it is questionable whether locals will be too enthusiastic about targets to reduce late running aircraft after 11.30pm from 330 in 2016 to 270 in 2017. Or whether they will welcome no arrivals before 4.30am without clarity over the agreement to ban night flights from 11pm to 6am.
Where is the government?
As Heathrow itself accepts, importantly, the airport cannot deliver on most of the claims it makes. Of course, a carbon neutral airport is a worthy ideal. But it is the flights themselves that cause most carbon emissions and account for much of the noise pollution, while traffic to and from the airport also creates air pollution. Heathrow cannot control or make guarantees about fixing any of this.
Indeed, at the heart of these limits to Heathrow 2.0 is the failure of the May government. The airport is simply trying to fill the void left by Theresa May and transport secretary Chris Grayling, who have abandoned their responsibility to offer policy leadership in this field.
A recent Heathrow report by MPs on the Environmental Audit Committee criticised the government for its lax interpretation of air quality directives, its failure to address local health impacts, its overly ambitious targets for ultra-low emission vehicles, and its absence of detailed plans for road improvements and new rail access to the airport. The committee also criticised the government for watering down proposals for an independent aviation noise authority and for not being clear about how to bridge the gap between theoretical models to reduce emissions and actual policy.
Most concerning is that this absence of leadership betrays the emergence of a new “post-sustainable” aviation, designed to accommodate the challenges of Brexit. Gone are the attempts by the previous government to put climate change before new airports. In their place, the vital justifications and mechanisms for an expansionist agenda are carefully being assembled.
The risk is that green concerns will be pushed further to the margins, as people are increasingly urged to believe that human progress and innovation are enough to meet environmental challenges. In this emerging discourse, the demands of economic growth trump those of the environment and social well-being.