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Heathrow expansion is bad for the environment, bad for the economy, and a social injustice

Heathrow is already the biggest source of carbon emissions in the UK, responsible for as much carbon dioxide as Croatia’s entire economy
Heathrow is already the biggest source of carbon emissions in the UK, responsible for as much carbon dioxide as Croatia’s entire economy Credit: GETTY

The continuation of plans for a third runway at Heathrow – and the original plan itself – is utter madness. It will be regarded as the worst decision ever made by the Department for Transport (DfT), and cannot justifiably go ahead if politicians are serious about the 2050 zero carbon emissions target, announced last week. In the meantime, while we wait for what seems like its inevitable cancellation, billions of pounds of taxpayer’s money is being wasted.

Permitting Heathrow expansion is a clear signal that modern politics favours current generations over future ones – in spite of the Youth Strikes 4 Climate, in spite of Greta Thunberg’s recent visit. The challenges to Heathrow expansion were lead by a coalition of Greenpeace, the Mayor of London, local councils, and Friends of the Earth. This wasn’t some niche, local objection, but part of a rising movement of concern about climate change.

Yet the High Court last month dismissed all the legal challenges to expanding Heathrow, already the biggest source of carbon emissions in the UK, responsible for as much carbon dioxide as Croatia’s entire economy. There really couldn’t be a clearer disconnect between the science and government policy. As it stands, aviation could potentially consume over half the UK’s carbon budget by 2050.

Heathrow expansion is a social injustice. Over half of the UK population, 53 per cent, doesn’t fly – ever. A remarkable 70 per cent of flights are taken by just 15 per cent of the population. An expanded Heathrow will provide no benefit to a huge portion of the population, and yet whether we fly or not, all of us, and our children and grandchildren, will suffer the consequences of global warming.

The original decision is also bad economics. The Stern Report estimated that climate change will reduce GDP by five to 25 per cent. Aviation, one of the fastest growing contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, remains heavily subsidised. Aviation fuel is exempt from tax and duty, amounting to a tax subsidy in the UK of £6.6bn, or £240 per household – for all of us – whether you fly or not. Making a massive investment in this heavily subsidised and highly polluting industry doesn’t make economic sense. The money should be invested in making the UK a world leader in decarbonised air travel.

Climate protesters in London Credit: GETTY

At Responsible Travel we vehemently oppose a third runway at Heathrow. Instead, we are seeking to reduce demand for aviation via a new Green Flying Duty (GFD) and to ring fence a significant proportion of the money for research and development into electric and other decarbonised air travel. We hope to see more investment in railways, too.

A GFD would need to put the cost of all flying up sufficiently to reduce demand. This would certainly impact our business and the wider tourism industry, which might seem counter-intuitive for a travel company. However, despite being very aware of the benefits tourism brings locally – for the past 18 years we’ve been dedicated to responsible tourism – we believe that governments and the industry must now act to change the way we travel if we are to avert the global warming crisis.  

We urgently need non-polluting electric planes to be in use, but until they are, we all need to fly less. We must take fewer but longer holidays, and should be exploring closer to home in places accessible by rail. All our trips can be booked without flights, to encourage customers to travel by train where possible and we offer many railway holidays. Indeed, more than 50 per cent of our customers are outside the UK, so some will be local to the trips. In 2009 we stopped offering carbon offsetting as an add-on service for customers as we believe that offsets distract from the main issue of reduction.

However, global aviation emissions continue to soar. Individual action – although commendable – is not enough. We now need urgent, bold and brave government leadership. Business as usual is no longer an option. Exactly how the travel industry – our business included – will have to adapt remains to be seen, but it’s time for the Government to act by reigning in aviation.

The Government needs to drastically rethink its policies. Rather than expanding Heathrow, it should introduce a Green Flying Duty in the UK and show true global leadership on aviation and climate change. It is an opportunity for the country to lead the way in the decarbonised future of aviation. That’s the idea that makes the most sense to me, but I’m open to any others.

Here's what Telegraph readers have said about the Heathrow masterplan:

‘The planes have to go somewhere’

@George Dutton 

“The planes have to go somewhere. Not building a third runway is just going to add to the congestion at Heathrow or the planes will use other airports. The notion that somehow not building the runway is going to reduce the number of people travelling by air and thereby reducing carbon emissions is bonkers.”

‘The production of real jobs and more economic growth’

@Louis Le Marquand

“Yes modern politics should favour today’s generations more than future ones, as future generations don't exist yet - and therefore they don't have any rights! If there is a conflict between Theresa May’s 2050 goal of cutting CO2 emissions and the expansion of Heathrow, then the expansion should take priority. May's goal is arbitrary and is a clear sign of virtue signalling and pandering to environmentalist pressure groups. The expansion would mean the production of real jobs and would facilitate more economic growth.”

What do you think of the above opinions? Join the debate on Heathrow in the comments below