Will Heathrow plans be grounded by air pollution?

Economic arguments have long been at the forefront of the debate over airport expansion in the UK but another topic has fast become vital to the debate.

Air quality was a central theme in the response from Heathrow’s chief executive John Holland-Kaye to the Airports Commission report.

Airport expansion has been a political hot topic in the UK for years. Successive governments have avoided taking the decision about which of the country’s airports should be allowed to build extra capacity.

The Airports Commission’s report last July came down in favour of Heathrow but this did not stop further delays. It is anybody’s guess whether the government will stick to its current commitment to make a decision in July this year.

ClientEarth’s interest in all of this is based primarily on the increased air pollution that airport expansion, wherever it happens, is likely to cause.

As readers may know, we won our case against the government in the UK Supreme Court last year over its failure to uphold our right to clean air. The government was ordered to come up with new plans to bring air pollution (specifically nitrogen dioxide – NO2) within legal limits as soon as possible. The plans it produced in December will do nothing of the sort, so we’re taking them back to court.

How does this relate to airport expansion? Well, any increase in air traffic at an airport is likely to lead to an increase in road traffic. One of the main causes of NO2 in our towns and cities is diesel vehicles. Heathrow is in an area that already has illegal levels of NO2 air pollution, so the government would be on shaky legal ground if it sanctioned any expansion which went against the Supreme Court order to bring pollution down as soon as possible.

Mr Holland-Kaye’s assurances on air quality, and the evidence he provides for them, are underwhelming. He claims that there will be an ‘ultra-low emissions zone for airport vehicles by 2025’. We don’t know what conditions this zone will have. Regardless, it would be five years behind the tardy ULEZ which is currently slated to come into force in the congestion charging zone in central London. although London’s new mayor is already proposing significantly expanding this zone, and bringing it in earlier.

The Heathrow chief executive promises to ‘develop plans’ for an emissions charging scheme for vehicles accessing the airport. Developing plans (with no deadline for delivery that we have seen) is far from the radical action needed to get air pollution down to legal levels as soon as possible.

He also talks of extending a low emissions zone to Heathrow but again we haven’t seen the detail of when this would happen or what standards would apply.

A more fundamental problem for Heathrow is that as the area around the airport breaks legal limits, all these measures should be happening regardless of expansion, in order to satisfy the Supreme Court order and achieve legal limits as soon as possible.

It is worth bearing in mind that there are huge problems with the ultra low emissions zone that Boris Johnson planned for London in 2020. The zone relies on EU emissions standards – known as the ‘Euro standards‘ – allowing only vehicles that meet the Euro 6 emissions standards to access the zone free of charge. The problem is that, by the government’s own admission, the Euro 6 diesel cars on our roads emit on average six times the legal limits.

All of this makes it difficult to believe that the expansion could go ahead without a significant increase in ambition from Heathrow when it comes to reducing air pollution.

Photo by tataquax 


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Tim Henderson
Tim Henderson
8 years ago

John Holland-Kaye could do well to remind himself of all the leg work on surface access that BAA did for the 2007 expansion proposal before the government convinced itself that European Union standards for diesel cars would wave a magic wand at the NO2 problem.

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