THE BLOG

Heathrow Might Have Been His Answer, but Davies Was Asking the Wrong Question

01/07/2015 09:23 BST | Updated 30/06/2016 10:59 BST
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After years of work, and under the pressure of intense lobbying by the aviation industry, Sir Howard Davies has finally published his report on airport expansion today. His proposal: Europe's biggest noise polluter, Heathrow Airport, should expand.

The decision has been framed simply: Gatwick or Heathrow? More noise, more pollution, blowing the UK's climate change commitments or, well, the same again.

Expansion at either airport would cost billions of pounds and cause thousands more people's lives to be blighted by more aircraft flying low over homes, schools and neighbourhoods. Davies' recommendations were always going to anger one community, and the failure to properly consider an option where neither residents near Heathrow or Gatwick face such colossal airport expansion near their homes is indefensible.

The proposed new runway isn't just bad news for people living nearby - it's extremely damaging to our efforts to meet our climate change targets. Aviation is estimated to have made up 7.5% of the UK's Greenhouse Gas emissions last year and the Airport Commission's forecasts show that aviation is set to breach its sector's generous targets - even if a new runway wasn't built. If Davies' proposal was to come to fruition, this breach would, no doubt, be even greater.

Of course what Davies hasn't set out in his 344 page report is that there are genuine alternatives to airport expansion. One such proposal, a frequent flyer levy, would reduce demand for airport expansion through a fairer tax on flights that increases depending on the number of flights you take. Most people don't fly even once a year while just 15% of UK residents account for 7 out of 10 of all flights taken. It's clear that this small minority of wealthy individuals are fuelling the demand for new runways - not families taking an annual holiday. The proposed frequent flyer levy would be a fair way to manage demand - the crucial missing part of any aviation policy serious about tackling climate change and protecting local communities.

Another alternative would be to redirect investment away from airport expansion and into improving railways and reducing fares - to end the ridiculous situation where flying is often cheaper than taking the train to near-by destinations.

If the Government is serious about tackling climate change then it only has one possible way to respond to this report: bin it. Ministers know very well that airport expansion, at Heathrow, Gatwick or anywhere else for that matter, will hugely damage this Government's credibility on climate change.

If they're serious about the UK's leadership role at the crucial Paris climate summit later this year, we urgently need a more honest approach that recognises the incompatibility between endless growth in aviation capacity and efforts to secure a safe and habitable climate.

Residents of Heathrow will now redouble their efforts to stop this needless expansion. Their cause will be helped by the fact that a number of cabinet ministers are opposed to expansion, but hindered by a Chancellor who's seemingly hellbent on laying more runway tarmac.

The politics make this decision difficult for the Government, but the climate science should make it easy. The question is whether politicians will listen to local communities and climate experts to find a real alternative to new runways, or if they'll bow to the aviation industry lobby and plough ahead with expansion?

Caroline Lucas is the Green MP for Brighton, Pavilion