Tim Yeo and the Folly of a Third Runway at Heathrow

by Pat Dodd Racher, August 29 2012

What did Tim Yeo MP, chair of the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee in the House of Commons, say yesterday? “We could cover the whole of Surrey with runways and not increase emissions by a single kilogram.”

This startling assertion, accompanying his plea for prime minister David Cameron to renege on his opposition to a third runway at London’s Heathrow Airport, was based on the belief that the inclusion of aviation in the European Union’s Emissions Trading System (ETS) is a Panglossian miracle sufficient to magic away the spectre of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other dangerous greenhouse gases accumulating in excessive concentrations.

The Emissions Trading System, which included aviation from January 2012, enables organisations to sell emissions allowances they don’t need, and to buy in allowances if they seek to increase their emissions. As with milk quotas, the EU created a market where none previously existed.  The target is a 21% fall in emissions across the EU between 2005 and 2020.

Yet the ETS scheme does not cover everyone, only about 11,000 industrial polluters across 30 countries in and bordering the EU. The amount of pollution from these plants can in theory be measured from the number of permits used and traded…. but the scheme has attracted fraudsters, and in any case it excludes all but the largest individual emitters of greenhouse gases. For most of the seven years since the ETS began in 2005, much of Europe has been mired in a recession with origins in almost boundless cheap credit and lack of capacity to repay it. Economies are not growing, so there has been little pressure on industry to increase production and thus emissions.

The allowances were dished out over-generously, in fact representing free money to polluters. Alongside recession, the advent of carbon offsets, allowing polluters to ‘neutralise’ their emissions by contributing to ‘clean’ projects such as reforestation and wind and solar energy schemes, is a smothering blanking over the carbon price, which at the end of August 2012 is about €8.25 a tonne. As the International Energy Agency maintains that a price of just on €40 ($50) per tonne will be required to induce polluters to change their habits, it’s clear that €8.25 is not going to achieve much in the way of cleaner technologies.

‘Cleaner’ is not the same as ‘renewable’, either. Switching from coal to somewhat cleaner natural gas means using up fewer emissions allowances, although natural gas is a finite fossil fuel, and the faster it’s burnt, the less remains for future use.

So, what did Mr Yeo mean when he said: “We could cover the whole of Surrey with runways and not increase emissions by a single kilogram”?

He truncated the argument somewhat. If he had said: “We could cover the whole of Surrey with runways and not increase emissions by a single kilogram within the European Emissions Trading System,” that may have been substantially true, but emissions as reported within the trading scheme are only a fraction of total emissions into the atmosphere.

According to Vincent Swinkels, sustainability consultant based in the Netherlands, it’s likely that “in 10 years’ time about a quarter of all global CO2 emissions will fall under an emissions trading scheme”. He also envisages greenhouse gas reduction policies such ultra-low emissions from new vehicles and continued expansion in renewable feedstocks for energy, but even so he does not think enough will be done to make an impact on climate change. Too many countries will ignore the issue, and even in states trying to make a difference, emission caps will often be nowhere near low enough.

So Tim Yeo appears to have been literally economical with the truth. He has also ignored a critical argument against airport expansion: the absence of affordable fuel for a larger aviation fleet.

Air travel expanded when fuel was CHEAP, when big new oilfields were being discovered, and oil was being drilled at high efficiency. Those days have gone. Oil exploration now is focused on harsh environments like Siberia and Alaska, and in the deep oceans, where spills can do enormous environmental harm, and where the energy expended in obtaining the oil is almost as great as the energy value of the oil itself.

Remember Concorde, that booming but beautiful supersonic aircraft? Concorde gulped fuel at a prodigious rate, 157.6 gallons per passenger between London and New York, assuming a full plane. A jumbo Boeing 747-100 consumed only 57.7 gallons per passenger. Concorde was pretty unaffordable even in the days of cheap oil. As oil transitions into a luxury purchase, fewer people will be able to afford to fly. We won’t need so many runways. In fact, we will probably be rueing the hard surfaces and wishing that the market gardens on the fine agricultural land of Middlesex had never been bulldozed to make way for Heathrow.

Third runway? I’d much rather have a programme to reintroduce organic market gardens in and around London!

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