Heathrow is pretending we don't need to choose between more planes and less pollution. It’s a lie

Somewhere behind that air pollution (oh, alright, it's a cloud) is a plane. Image: Getty.

Britain and Europe’s largest airport is not the most obvious target for an eco-friendly rebranding. Yet Heathrow Airport recently unveiled a new sustainability strategy, Heathrow 2.0, to counter growing opposition to its expansion plans. The Conversation

Both the government and an independent Airports Commission have backed proposals to construct a new third runway at London’s largest airport hub. But the plans remain highly contested, with ongoing concerns about noise pollution, air quality and rising carbon emissions. Heathrow expansion has become an emblematic issue in the fight against climate change.

At first glance, it is tempting to dismiss the launch of Heathrow 2.0 as yet another attempt at greenwashing. Indeed, those in favour of the new runway have made sustained efforts to depoliticise the issue ever since the 2010-15 coalition government declared its ambition to put the environment and local well-being ahead of Heathrow’s growth. An airport that exists above politics gives the illusion that no one has to choose between planes and pollution.

In fact, the current plans to render its new runway carbon neutral echo the failed policy of “sustainable aviation” under the New Labour government. This strategy was quickly discredited by scientists and environmentalists, because of its “cake and eat it” narrative, in which we could fly more and still cope with rising carbon emissions.

Nonetheless, such arguments pepper Heathrow’s new vision for corporate social responsibility. Much is made of the expected benefits of new technologies and innovations, the role of increased connectivity in creating jobs, the enjoyment we gain from the social benefits of flying, and the commitment to carbon offsetting schemes to address rising emissions. Heathrow 2.0 even aspires to “‘decouple’ aviation growth from climate change” – a key pillar of the ideology of sustainable aviation.

Yet Heathrow’s strategy at least engages with the idea of sustainable development, through what it calls “responsibility”. It promises to improve its practices as an employer, committing to a London Living Wage, and it pledges to put an end to human and wildlife trafficking. It wants to produce a “zero-carbon airport” with reduced emissions and “polluter pays” policies. Heathrow 2.0 might even satisfy local demands for better noise protection.

But it’s the detail that really matters. In important respects, the plans lack clarity and ambition. Strategic priorities like a “noise envelope” to cap the overall disturbance emanating from the airport are often stated, but not accompanied with clear targets. Similarly, it is questionable whether locals will be too enthusiastic about targets to reduce late running aircraft after 11.30pm from 330 in 2016 to 270 in 2017. Or whether they will welcome no arrivals before 4.30am without clarity over the agreement to ban night flights from 11pm to 6am.


Where is the government?

As Heathrow itself accepts, importantly, the airport cannot deliver on most of the claims it makes. Of course, a carbon neutral airport is a worthy ideal. But it is the flights themselves that cause most carbon emissions and account for much of the noise pollution, while traffic to and from the airport also creates air pollution. Heathrow cannot control or make guarantees about fixing any of this.

Indeed, at the heart of these limits to Heathrow 2.0 is the failure of the May government. The airport is simply trying to fill the void left by Theresa May and transport secretary Chris Grayling, who have abandoned their responsibility to offer policy leadership in this field.

A recent Heathrow report by MPs on the Environmental Audit Committee criticised the government for its lax interpretation of air quality directives, its failure to address local health impacts, its overly ambitious targets for ultra-low emission vehicles, and its absence of detailed plans for road improvements and new rail access to the airport. The committee also criticised the government for watering down proposals for an independent aviation noise authority and for not being clear about how to bridge the gap between theoretical models to reduce emissions and actual policy.

Most concerning is that this absence of leadership betrays the emergence of a new “post-sustainable” aviation, designed to accommodate the challenges of Brexit. Gone are the attempts by the previous government to put climate change before new airports. In their place, the vital justifications and mechanisms for an expansionist agenda are carefully being assembled.

The risk is that green concerns will be pushed further to the margins, as people are increasingly urged to believe that human progress and innovation are enough to meet environmental challenges. In this emerging discourse, the demands of economic growth trump those of the environment and social well-being.

David Howarth is professor of ideology & discourse analysis at the University of Essex. Steven Griggs is professor in public policy at De Montfort University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

The Delhi Metro: How do you build a transport system for 26m people?

Indraprastha station in 2006. Image: Getty.

“Thou hath not played rugby until thou hath tried to get onto a Delhi Metro in rush hour,” a wise Yogi once said.

If you’ve never been on New Delhi’s Metro, your mind might conjure up the the conventional image of Indian trains: tawdry carriages, buckets of sweat, people hanging out of windows and the odd holy cow wandering around for good measure.

Well, no. The Delhi Metro is actually one of the most marvellously sophisticated, affordable, timely, and practical public transportation systems out there. On a 45C day in the Indian summer, many a traveller has shed tears of joy on entering the spacious, air-conditioned carriages.

Above ground, Delhi is a sprawling metropolis of the scariest kind: 26m people, three times the population of London, churn and grind through Delhi itself.

The National Capital Region, an area which includes Delhi and its surrounding satellite cities – now victim of its never-ending urban sprawl – has an estimated population of almost 50m. So how do you tie such a huge population together?

The map; click to expand. Image: Delhi Metro Rail.

Motorised vehicles won’t do it alone. For one, air pollution is a horrific problem in Delhi, as it is across India. Last November, the government declared a state of emergency when the Indian capital was engulfed by a toxic, choking fog so thick that you could barely see several metres in front of you, drawing allusions to the great Victorian fogs in London.

Then there’s Delhi’s famous traffic. Twenty-five years ago, the travel writer William Dalrymple observed that you could reduce the Delhi’s road laws to one simple idea: the largest vehicle always had the right of way. The traffic has tamed somewhat in the 21st century, but the number of vehicles has multiplied again and again, and it’s not uncommon for people to be stuck in four-hour traffic jams when they try to traverse the mighty city.

Enter the Delhi Metro – a huge network of 164 over- and underground stations – and by any account, a titan of civil engineering and administration.

The numbers are simply colossal. Every day the metro serves on average almost 3m people. Annually, it carries around 1bn.

In a country where intercity trains still turn up a day late, the Delhi Metro is extraordinarily timely. On the major lines, trains will come every several minutes. The trains are extraordinary speedy, and you’ll reach your destination in a fraction of the time it would take for you to drive the distance.

The minimum fare is 10 rupees (12p); the maximum fare, to and from the airport, is 50 (60p).

The evolution of the metro. Image: Terramorphus/Wikimedia Commons.

Construction of the metro system began in 1998, with the first section completed in late 2002. Keen to avoid the catastrophic corruption and bureaucratic mismanagement which plagued eastern city of the Kolkata Metro, developers took advice from Hong Kong’s high-tech system There have been several stages of development to add extra lines; more is planned. By 2020, it is hoped that the 135 miles of line will have increased to over 300.  

One thing quite striking about the metro is its women’s only carriages at the rear and the front of the train, marked by pink signs. Sexual assault and harassment has been a horrific problem on Delhi’s transport systems. Women can of course go anywhere on the train – but men who violate the carriage system will have to deal with the scathing anger of the entire pink carriage.


One of the under-discussed impacts of widespread and well-used public transportation systems is their propensity to break down social and class barriers over time. As the London Tube began to be used more and more in early 20th century London, people from completely different walks of life and classes began to brush shoulders and share the same air.

The story is similar in Delhi. The necessity of the metro helps to break down old caste and class divisions. Of course, many elite Delhiites would not be seen dead on the metro, and choose their private chauffeur over brushing shoulders with the common man. But slowly and surely, the times are a changing.

What’s more, the Delhi Metro system is one of the greenest around. Six years ago, the Metro was the first railway system in the world to be awarded carbon credits from the United Nations for helping to reduce pollution in the capital by an estimated 640,000 tonnes every year.  

All praises sung and said, however, at peak times it’s less mind the gap and more mind your ribs – as a fifth of humanity seems to try to get on and off the train at once.

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