Accidental heroes?

| 13th January 2009
The Government's green light for Heathrow's third runway makes no economic - let alone environmental - sense, says Joss Garman

Willie Walsh, CEO of British Airways, whose company profits have been crashing over the past few months, says his airline is battling ‘the worst trading environment’ his industry has ‘ever faced.’ Michael O’Leary of Ryanair predicted 30 airlines would have gone bust by Christmas. Easyjet’s Stelios put it best – ‘We are not Aldi or Lidl. It’s very difficult to stop eating in a recession but you can stop fl ying.’

Given the economic downturn and the particularly vociferous impacts it’s already having on the aviation industry, it should come as no surprise that The Economist recently used its lead editorial to join calls for a rethink over the Heathrow expansion saying, ‘circumstances have changed and [the government] needs to act accordingly.’ Even the former boss of British Airways, Bob Ayling, wrote months ago, ‘A third runway at Heathrow is against Britain’s economic interests.’

Even using the Department for Transport’s (DfT) own cost-benefit analysis, but factoring in Stern’s, as opposed to Defra’s, figure for the ‘shadow price of carbon’, economists have calculated that rather than being of net benefit to the economy, a third runway would lead to economic losses of about £5 billion – and that’s using cheery economic forecasts! To steal a phrase from the former government chief scientist, Sir David King, if new runways are approved during this recession, they will turn out to be ‘white elephants.’

After all, what happens when you set those DfT growth forecasts against the context of what Nobel economics laureate, Joe Stiglitz, predicts will be ‘the deepest and longest downturn in the last quarter century and almost surely, since the Great Depression’? One senior government apparatchik told me, ‘the financial services industry is no longer central to the British economy.’ Yet Heathrow expansion was always about ‘the City’ and the 60 per cent of those using Heathrow who are business passengers. So what of those arguments now?

The Sunday Times reported that a poll of British business leaders found that 95 per cent believe a new runway would ‘not make much difference’ to their companies. In contrast, nobody now seriously doubts the environmental case against airport expansion. It remains overwhelming.

Just last month Professor Kevin Anderson from the world-respected Tyndall Centre for climate change research presented a report to The Royal Society which said, ‘the urgency with which the (aviation) industry must make the transition to a lowcarbon pathway leaves no option, but to instigate a radical and immediate programme of demand management. There should be a compete moratorium on airport expansion.’

He was talking about climate emissions, but local air pollutants from Heathrow are already dangerously high too. With 1,000 premature deaths a year in London already because of poor air quality, the Government’s own Environment Agency says that a new runway ‘will result in increased morbidity and mortality impacts.’ Indeed, the EU Environment Commissioner said explicitly expansion would lead to a breach of European air pollution law.

I’ve always argued that these scientific cases should and would be enough to stop BAA’s plans. However, as Geoff Hoon this week knocked back the Government’s decision for a third time, it struck me that. for Labour. Only the economics count and that’s probably what’s caused a double-take. Sure, Ministers must also be pretty worried about the 57 Labour MPs who have signed a motion against the runway and the stream of West London MPs putting in calls to Number 10 arguing their marginal seats are on the line. Ultimately though, for Gordon Brown, it’s the economics that is causing the wobble.

For years, the Green movement has been discussing whether or not Brown ‘gets’ climate change. It seems like a simple enough concept for someone who can allegedly run the UK economy, but all the evidence seems to point in the opposite direction. ‘This planet has, or had, a problem, which was this. Most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small, green pieces of paper, which is odd, because on the whole, it wasn’t the small, green pieces of paper which were unhappy,’ Douglas Adams wrote prophetically.

If Heathrow is cancelled to save money, rather than millions of lives, then we have our answer; the government’s ignorance has put it into a position where it can only do the right thing by accident.

Joss Garman is an environmental campaigner and journalist

This article first appeared in the Ecologist February 2009

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