Air Pollution, Offsetting and Heathrow Airport

22nwa_5522_arriving_from_amsterdam_28237646873629So this week, after 40 years or so of procrastination, the U.K. government finally decided to support the building of a third runway at Heathrow Airport, citing business, tourism and inwards investment.

In one sense, it is not surprising. After the referendum vote to leave the European Union, the government must have been under pressure to reassure that the U.K. was still an open economy. But a third runway at Heathrow just happens to be the option that would cost the most money, take the longest time to build and have a greater effect on the environment through air pollution and noise.

Yet, the government seemed to minimise the problems of air pollution, which already exceeds E.U. legal limits in many areas of the U.K., by referring to the recently-signed United Nations accord on aviation emissions. Under the agreement, 2% of the aviation industry’s annual revenues will be used to fund carbon offsetting and reduction schemes.

Carbon offsetting is not a new idea in the battle against climate change or to the aviation industry. A number of airlines already take part in voluntary scheme. But one downside has been that voluntary offset schemes have tended to be dependent on airline passengers opting to pay an extra surcharge. Increased air fares is not necessarily problematic, from the perspective of cutting emissions, if it makes passengers think about their usage. But offsetting schemes have long been considered “greenwash” – initiatives that create the impression of being environmentally-friendly without really changing behaviour. There is no real transparency  as to the relationship between aviation emissions and money spent on trees planted, other than that trees absorb carbon dioxide.

On top of this, offsetting schemes are not good for the environment in general.  In existing offsetting schemes, “forest areas” have tended to be plantation monocultures, which do not provide sufficient biodiversity, require heavy use of agrochemicals and have other degrading effects on the surrounding environment.

There are some criticisms of the actual legal agreement itself. Although 191 countries signed the agreement, it is not due to become mandatory until 2027. It only applies to international flights. I do not think either of these can be regarded as flaws. In research published by the Westminster Law Review, the act of signing international agreements can itself be the self-motivation for governments to push for change, albeit on its own terms.

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