Heathrow expansion deemed unlawful – what does this mean for air pollution?

The High Court has ruled Heathrow’s expansion to be unlawful on climate grounds. However, the judges said that in future, a third runway could go ahead, as long as it fits with the UK’s climate policy. Air Quality News explores what this decision might mean for air pollution. 

If built, the third runway would see the number of annual flights increase by 280,000, and the number of passengers to almost double from 72 million to 130 million.

MP’s argued that the expansion of Heathrow was in the long-term interest to the UK’s economy, with benefits to the wider economy estimated as being upwards from £61bn.

However, campaigners including Greenpeace and the Mayor of London successfully argued that expanding one of the top polluting industries threatens to undermine the UK’s global efforts to meet the legally binding commitments on climate change and it would pose an increased risk to residents and employees around Heathrow on air pollution grounds.

Aircraft engines generally combust fuel efficiently, but according to the Aviation Environment Federation, ground-level emissions during takeoff, climb and landing have a huge impact on ambient air quality.

According to the 2019 European Aviation Environmental Report, a two-engine aircraft carrying 150 passengers and travelling for one-hour releases 30kg of nitrogen oxide (NOx) into the atmosphere.

In 2015, NOx released from aircraft accounted for 14% of all EU transport emissions.

Long-term exposure to NOx can decrease lung function and increase the risk of respiratory conditions, and exposure to NO2 can lead to an increased likelihood of respiratory problems and the development of asthma.

Another major pollutant that is released from aviation is the smaller ultra-fine particles (UFP), which pose a considerable threat to human health. They have been linked to many deadly diseases from heart disease, chronic lung disease and brain cancer.

Researchers at King’s College London identified that when compared to other cities, London has the largest concentration of these ultrafine particles and the source is often directly from aircraft at Heathrow Airport.

The emissions released from the aircraft themselves are not the only problem when it comes to air pollution, but also the increased traffic that a greater number of passengers travelling to and from the airport will inevitably bring.

Road traffic statistics have revealed that many of the roads around Heathrow, including the M25, M4 and A4 are already some of the busiest and most polluted in the UK.

Bath Road, just outside of Heathrow Airport, is reported as having the worst air pollution in the whole of Greater London.

Heathrow airport claimed to be working on strategies to improve public transport links in order to mitigate air pollution, and even proposed the first-ever airport Clean Air Zone, 

However, the expansion plans also involved the development of the ‘world’s largest carpark,’ which would have a capacity for 53,000 cars.

The area surrounding Heathrow is currently the second most polluted part of London. Heathrow Airport Limited (HAL) has 12 air monitoring sites in and around the airport, and daily mean particulate matter concentrations often exceed the 25μg/m3 World Health Organisation guideline.

In a report published in 2016, by the then Mayor of London Boris Johnson, it is estimated that the Heathrow expansion could increase the already dangerous levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) by 4-8μg/m3. Activist group AirportWatch estimates that this would put 47,000 homes at greater risk from air pollution, which would compromise the health of 121,377 people and would cost the NHS £10.8m through increased hospitalisations.

Following the court appeal, Tim Alderslade, chief executive of Airlines UK. The industry body representing the UK registered airlines said: ‘Today’s decisions is extremely disappointing.

‘UK aviation has committed to net-zero carbon by 2050 and this factors in the emissions created by Heathrow expansion. It is not a question of being pro-aviation or pro-environment.

‘We urge Ministers to appeal the decision, back expansion publicly, and ensure it delivers for the whole country.’

A spokesperson from Heathrow Airport has stated that the airport will continue to revisit their plans in order be in line with climate targets, they said: ‘We will appeal to the supreme court on this one issue and are confident that we will be successful.

Will Rundle, head of legal at Friends of the Earth, who has been heavily involved in the campaign against the expansion said: ‘This ruling is an absolutely ground-breaking result for climate justice. We were fighting a project that would have had dire implications for present and future generations.’

‘Shockingly, this case revealed that the government accepted legal advice that it should not consider the Paris Agreement when giving the third runway the go-ahead. The Court has said very clearly that this was illegal.’ 

The government said they will not appeal today’s decision. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps tweeted: ‘Airport expansion is core to boosting global connectivity. We also take seriously our commitment to the environment. This Govt won’t appeal today’s judgement given our manifesto makes clear any #Heathrow expansion will be industry-led.’

Photo Credit – Pixabay

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