The debate about UK airport expansion has been framed brilliantly by the pro-expansion side, at the expense of climate change.
The Airports Commission is expected to publish its report on London airport expansion this month – recommending a new runway at either Gatwick or Heathrow.
As things stand, we can only meet the UK’s 80% emissions reduction target if our aviation emissions in 2050 are no higher than they were in 2005.
This could allow for a 60% increase in flights, balanced by improved efficiency and use of sustainable biofuels. That assumes a cut of 85% in emissions from other sectors: the Committee on Climate Change have said they don’t think it’s plausible to count on even greater cuts to balance higher emissions from aviation.
Yet, the Department for Transport’s UK Aviation Forecasts predicts that, even without airport expansion, passenger numbers will more than double by 2050 and emissions will hugely overshoot the target (about 40% above the 2010 level).
It suggests that, if it isn’t constrained by airport capacity, UK aviation would be about 10% greater (I was surprised by how little difference there is).
So even without expansion we appear to have a problem with reconciling flying and meeting our climate targets. Expanding our airports will make this problem even harder. And if we do expand in the South East, there will be even less chance to expand elsewhere – hardly boding well for a rebalancing of the economy.
But that challenge is barely being talked about in the debate about airport expansion.
This, I think, is down to how well the debate’s been framed by those who want expansion: the question is whether we should expand at Heathrow or at Gatwick, not whether there should be an option 3 of not expanding at all.
I’m reminded of Damian McBride’s observation that the up-side for Labour of the Blair-Brown battles was that the media focused on those and ignored the Tories.
The entire focus of airport expansion coverage (and polling) is now on the question of where, not whether.
Similarly, the way the environment is discussed has been framed in a way that helps the pro-airport side.
Gatwick’s marketing talks extensively about the environment, by which they mean local noise and air pollution.
Climate change is typically treated by the media as an environmental (not an economic or social) issue, so Gatwick’s framing of the environmental impacts as local, rather than global, means that climate change is pushed off the table: there’s only so much time the media can devote to a ‘niche’ issue like the environment.
Together, this means the debate’s been framed as a battle between Heathrow and Gatwick, while the environment is a metric by which their local impacts can be judged.
Probably as a result of this, there’s been little recent polling on whether or not people actually want a new runway.
The latest I can find is from Opinium’s poll for Carbon Brief in January 2013, which had 39% supporting an increase in flights from the South East, 16% opposing, and 45% in the middle or don’t know. While it doesn’t point to much opposition, there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of enthusiasm either.
It suggests an effective opposition movement could do a lot to shift public opinion: much as the XL Pipeline protests have in the US. But they’d need to start with the recognition that their side of the debate is currently not recognised as valid.
Nevertheless, there’s an enormous challenge of expanding airport capacity while meeting our legal climate targets, and public opinion appears still to be largely undecided about expansion. Given that, it’s strange that the debate has been so limited.