photo of planes flying near Heathrow

Why we're fighting against a third runway at Heathrow

Chris Grayling's biggest mistake isn't ferries, it's the climate-wrecking third runway at Heathrow.
Craig Bennett
By Craig Bennett    |      Published:  19 Mar 2019    |      4 minute read

Amid all his failings around trains and ferries, the worst legacy of Chris Grayling is shaping up to be his environmental illiteracy. Particularly around climate change.

Transport now makes up over a third of the UK’s carbon emissions – larger than any other sector of the economy. Pollution from planes taking off from UK airports has doubled since 1990.

Getting transport on track to meet climate goals should be the Secretary of State's top priority. Instead, it’s the ultimate example of Failing Grayling.

The alarm bells should be ringing in his ears.

Just last autumn, the IPCC climate science report set out the dangers of global warming beyond 1.5 degrees – and the need for "rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented" action.

In another paper, a group of the world’s leading scientists warned that “…decisions occurring over the next decade or two could significantly influence the trajectory of the Earth System for tens to hundreds of thousands of years and potentially lead to conditions …that would be inhospitable to current human societies”.

School Strike 4 Climate leads the way

Last month saw the UK’s first school strike for climate, where thousands of pupils took their outrage and exasperation at inadequate political action to the streets. They were supported by over 200 academics, including top climate scientists.

Sir David Attenborough has spoken out about the climate crisis, warning: “If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.”

But Chris Grayling appears deaf to all these warnings.

Climate-wrecking third runway at Heathrow

Heathrow airport is already the biggest single source of emissions in the UK. If the third runway goes ahead, it will mean over 700 additional planes every day, belching an additional 300 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere.

What’s the justification for allowing one polluting industry to dramatically increase carbon emissions at a time when every other sector of the economy is required to make major cuts?

There isn’t one.

Even the economic arguments for a third runway at Heathrow collapse on closer examination, as recent analysis from the New Economics Foundation revealed. It’s the wrong type of transport investment in the wrong place – from an economic and environmental perspective.

Friends of the Earth legal challenge against Heathrow expansion

Little surprise then that the Secretary of State’s decision to proceed with the third runway faces not one but 5 legal challenges – taking place right now in the High Court.

Friends of the Earth is among several claimants challenging the proposed runway on climate change, sustainable development and air pollution grounds.

Nor does the threat of airport expansion stop with the third runway at Heathrow. Local residents, air pollution experts, nature lovers and climate activists are fighting plans for airport expansion elsewhere, including Bristol, Birmingham, Newcastle, Liverpool, Luton and Manchester.

Yet rather than heeding public concerns, the Department for Transport published a new Aviation Strategy, out for consultation until April. This opens the door to even more airport expansion and dismisses the climate consequences as if they were a mere frivolity.

While other countries are recognising the need to shift short haul flights onto rail, Grayling boasts about developing new domestic routes, apparently without a second thought to climate.

This cavalier approach to carbon emissions has not, however, gone unnoticed.

The Government’s official climate body, the Committee on Climate Change, has explained politely that the aviation strategy must be aligned with climate goals. They argue that the sector must do more to cut emissions – especially if the UK is to meet a stronger net zero target for emissions expected soon.

The letter also warns that off-setting must not be relied upon and that limiting growth in demand for aviation is essential – two points that have been made repeatedly, yet so far ignored by Grayling.

Damaging road-building plans

And it’s not just the in the skies where the UK’s current transport policy is failing on climate.

Dinosaur road schemes such as the Oxford Cambridge Expressway would destroy precious wildlife sites, worsen car dependence, and exacerbate climate change and air pollution.

It’s long been established that building more roads creates more traffic and does not solve congestion problems. Yet the Department for Transport is currently engaged in the biggest road-building programme in decades, bulldozing through the countryside to make way for 100s of miles of new roads.

Oxford and Cambridge are already two of the most congested cities in Britain. These plans will only exacerbate the problem.

The latest greenhouse gas statistics show unequivocally that road transport (in particular passenger cars) is the most significant source of emissions in the sector.

But the Transport Secretary boasts of the “massive” amounts of public money being allocated to major road schemes – announcing an eye-watering £25.3 billion for the next road investment period.

An approach that prioritised climate change would urgently redirect the bulk of those billions to improving public transport, cycle routes, and rail links for people and freight.

Electric alternatives

What about electric vehicles?

Even there, the Department for Transport’s only major climate policy turns out to be weak and unambitious. The 2040 date for ending new petrol and diesel car sales as been slammed by the cross-party Transport Committee of MPs as far too late.

Instead of accepting their recommendation for a 2032 date, Grayling has gone into reverse: slashing grants for electric vehicles and breaking a promise that the Department itself would switch to electric cars.

Moreover, electric vehicles are only part of the solution. Car mileage must be cut by at least 20% by 2030, according to new research commissioned by Friends of the Earth.

Nor does switching to electric cars help cut congestion or reduce the major micro-plastic pollution problem associated with vehicle tyres.

High Court challenge

All eyes are on the High Court legal challenge against the third runway at Heathrow.

Friends of the Earth is leading the climate case against expansion, and it will prove to be one of the most important climate change court cases in the UK.

But whatever the outcome, it’s clear that Grayling’s obsession with old fashioned airport expansion and road building is choking off investment in walking, cycling and public transport.

This is killing the climate and coming at a high cost to human health too – not least due to toxic levels of air pollution in many towns and cities.

Whether or not Grayling accelerates towards the back benches, it’s high time for a U-turn on the aviation and road building strategies, in favour of an approach that gives the climate crisis the priority it deserves.

And, you never know, we might just get a transport strategy that’s worthy of the 21st century.

Follow Craig Bennett on Twitter: @craigbennett3