Why a new airport is bad (and not just on the Peninsula)

Trish Marchant says: Summer season is an ideal time to talk about air travel and airports. Many people are at this moment in foreign climes thanks to the availability of cheap plane tickets, but there is another cost and it’s environmental in all sorts of ways. The recent publicity around a new airport plan for the Peninsula as an alternative for the Thames Estuary airport is another good reason to talk aviation. So why would it be a bad idea?

The salt marshes on the Peninsula are part of the Thames Estuary and Marshes SPA, designated for its internationally important populations of wintering birds. The site regularly supports some 33,000 wintering waterfowl, of which avocets and ringed plovers occur in internationally important numbers in their own right. In summer, the site supports important breeding populations of avocets, marsh harriers, Mediterranean gulls and little terns. The RSPB have been monitoring bird patterns for years in response to various airport plans and cite the Thames Estuary as one of the top five most important sites in the UK for water birds wintering or migrating. Because of this the proposal was deemed unsafe. Even with an aggressive bird hazard management programme, the hazard to aircraft posed by birds was severe. At best the hazard was equal to the greatest risk at any of the present top 10 UK civil airports and, at worst, the level of risk was up to 12 times higher.

It makes sense to reference the previous attempt to build an airport at Cliffe as the same would apply to any future hub proposal. From an economic perspective, it offered a poor return on investment and was vulnerable to major cost over-runs. From an aviation perspective, it did not meet industry needs and there was no demand for it; there were significant air traffic control difficulties.

The Cliffe airport proposal would have caused major social disruption with over 1,000 properties demolished, the new proposal at Grain is as yet devoid of this level of detail but it is quite clear that any airport would require significant construction work for the transport links, road and rail, which will impact on vast swathes of the natural environment.

The following is lifted from the Cliffe public enquiry document:‘…the potential benefits of developing a major new airport at Cliffe would need to be considered in the context of its significant impacts on important wildlife habitats. Moreover, the internationally important status of some of the habitats under European law mean that any potentially adverse effect would require the Government to demonstrate that it had considered all reasonable alternatives. In light of the consultation, the Government is satisfied that there would be reasonable alternatives to Cliffe.’

Admittedly that allows the aviation business to claim that if not there then where, which may be why the Thames Hub airport is still on the table.

For this look at the argument against airport expansion let’s remind ourselves why we need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels with a quick summary of what Climate Change is:

Some of the gases in our atmosphere such as carbon dioxide, trap heat from the sun reflecting off the earth’s surface, keeping the earth warm. This is the natural greenhouse effect. However human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels are increasing the concentrations of these gases in the atmosphere. These additional gases are enhancing the greenhouse effect which is known as global warming. The effect of global warming is to increase global surface and ocean temperatures and ultimately cause climate change. The major greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxides & water vapour.

How does aviation make a difference? In brief aircraft contribute hugely to the problem of climate change. Air travel is the world’s fastest growing source of greenhouse gases and globally the world’s 16,000 commercial jet aircraft generate more than 600 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2), the world’s major greenhouse gas, per year. Indeed aviation generates nearly as much CO2 annually as that from all human activities in Africa. If aviation continues to grow at the current rate then it will account for half of what even the government thinks is the most the UK should be emitting by 2050. http://www.campaigncc.org/aviation#more

Aircraft emissions can also have a significant effect at ground level. Air and ground traffic at major airports can lead to pollution levels as high as city centres. Previous studies of Gatwick airport predicted that NOx emissions from cars would decrease by 75% due largely to cleaner vehicles, but aircraft emissions of NOx would expect to double over the same period. As a result the National Air Quality standards for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) may be exceeded in nearby towns. A report undertaken for the Health Council of the Netherlands reveals airports have a negative impact on public health so any review of an airport on the Peninsula should be forced to assess the cumulative way people are exposed to hazards including air pollution, noise and safety from airport operations.

“…the demand for air transport might not be growing at the present rate if airlines and their customers had to face the costs of the damage they are causing to the environment”
Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution 18th Report, ‘Transport and the Environment’, October 1994.

Air travel has an unfair advantage over other transport modes such as the car, bus and train because airlines don’t pay tax on aviation fuel. The absence of a fuel tax or an emissions based levy allows airlines to charge artificially low ticket prices as the cost of pollution is passed on to society and we pay the price.

In the UK airlines would have to pay at least £5 billion a year if they were taxed at the same rate as motorists. This amounts to more than £200 per household in the UK. Effectively we all subsidise the aviation industry to pollute regardless of whether we fly or not. Since 1990 passenger numbers in the UK have increased by 113 per cent, while real air fares have fallen by around 60 per cent. In the absence of further restraints on demand, air passenger numbers are forecast to grow by up to 200 per cent by 2050. The Government is currently looking into ways to make aviation more accountable for its CO2 emissions but bear in mind, when you complain that it will cost you more, that your local council and local hospital are already having to commit funds to cover the cost of their emissions from energy use so why should a private profit making business be excluded?

Fossil fuels are finite, the Earth doesn’t continually produce oil to replace that which we use. The peak of oil discovery was passed in the 1960s, and the world started using more than was found in new fields in 1981 (did you know that the USA has been a net importer of oil since before JR Ewing was on TV?). The gap between discovery and production has widened since. Many countries, including some important producers, have already passed their peak, suggesting that the world peak of production is now imminent. Availability of oil must be a consideration for all future development plans, from new housing developments which rely on the car (Lodge Hill at Chattenden may have ample housing but you still need to get to work) to airports which just won’t function without oil (bio-fuel alternatives have different challenges to overcome, growing fuel or food, who decides?)

So you have a whole rack of choices for your objections to an airport on the Peninsula, choose all or some but whatever you do make sure your voice is heard if or when the time comes.

(Authors comment: I just want to add that personally I am fed up by the constant greenwash attempts of big business. Climate change is real, use of fossil fuel is the cause of global warming. WE all need to take notice and think about a zero carbon future, don’t rely on the “Captains of Industry” to do it for us)

If you want to learn more about the aviation impact there are plenty of resources. Try http://www.zerocarbonbritain.com/
From Zero Carbon Britain 2030, p. 107 – The total climate change impact from aviation in the short term is estimated to be two to four times greater than that of carbon alone. This is due primarily to the release of water vapour and NOx at high altitudes where they have a short-term warming effect which they do not have when released at ground level. In the zerocarbonbritain2030 scenario an absolute reduction in transit is required. Passenger kilometres travelled domestically decrease by 20%, spread evenly across all modes. Domestic aviation is eliminated and international aviation decreases by two thirds due to limits on bio-fuel supply. ZCB2030, p. 8


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