Heathrow and Gatwick Battle It Out in the Media But Is Either Environmentally Deliverable?

15/05/2014 10:54 BST | Updated 14/07/2014 10:59 BST

Gatwick and Heathrow have been building up to this week for some time so that they could submit their updated proposals for a new runway to the government-appointed Airports Commission. They have done their best to keep the media interested by drip feeding their new ideas to the public while simultaneously having a dig at their rival. Much of the media reporting has pitted the two airports against each other with a focus on which of the three schemes (two at Heathrow and one at Gatwick) would offer greatest benefit and be the easiest to deliver.

But do any of the new proposals deliver on environmental issues? Many of the new ideas, such as noise compensation schemes and a congestion charge, aim to tackle these impacts but much of what has been proposed either misses the key questions or makes impressive promises on issues that are outside the control of airports.

The new Heathrow proposal, for example, while seeking a 50% increase in flights, makes a commitment to "keep CO2 emissions within UK climate change targets". The UK Government has also made this commitment - the Climate Change Act - and Heathrow's only contribution towards this appears to be using some renewable energy in its new terminal and incentivising efficient aircraft. Gatwick, while responsible for a smaller proportion of the UK's emissions today, promises a similar increase in flight numbers and the addition of the many long haul flights it promises would carry a big carbon penalty.

Unlike Heathrow, the UK is required to meet its commitment on CO2 emissions under legislation. Giving the go-ahead to any of the options would mean emissions would have to be cut elsewhere, either though imposing limits on other airports, like Birmingham or Manchester (which currently have room to grow), or expecting other sectors and industries to deliver near impossible emissions reductions.

Heathrow promises to play its part in meeting local air quality limits but its commitments on this look shallow. The airport plans, for example, to introduce a congestion charge for those accessing the airport by road if a new runway is built. But air pollution at Heathrow is already above EU legal limits and as pollution from aircraft themselves adds to the problem, an additional 270,000 flights for an extra 40 million passengers and a doubling of freight capacity is likely to significantly increase emissions. A congestion charge would have to be spectacularly high in order to compensate for this.

On both noise and air pollution issues Gatwick claims a comparative advantage over its rivals, as its rural location means that there is a lower population density in the area and fewer sources of air pollution. But it is that very rural location, with its low levels of background noise, that is valued by the thousands of people who would be affected by a second runway at Gatwick. Comparing itself favourably with Heathrow, where noise affects more people than at any other airport in Europe, doesn't mean there is no noise problem at Gatwick, even today, and air pollution doesn't need to breach legal limits to be harmful.

While all three runway proposals offer some sweeteners to deal with environmental impacts, none has been able to show how noise could be brought within the levels that are safe for human health or how a new runway could be compatible with the UK's commitments on climate change. With additional problems in relation to surface access and air pollution, the Airports Commission will have its work cut out in making a new runway look like an attractive investment for the next Government.