The following article was published in the House Magazine.
Prof. Paul Hooper and Prof. Callum Thomas. Manchester Metropolitan University
The coalitions government’s consultation document “Developing a sustainable framework for UK aviation” seeks to support air transport growth whilst limiting its environment impacts; thereby confirming the move away from ‘predict and provide’ toward the promotion of ‘sustainable mobility’. Sustainable mobility requires the development of an integrated public transport network that facilitates use of the most ‘environmentally’ appropriate mode of travel, where airports develop as inter-modal transport hubs, public transport to airports increasingly replaces cars, and where some air routes transfer to rail. Without such an approach, it is likely that in the longer term, levels of mobility will become constrained by transport’s growing environmental impacts. Policies that promote increasing integration of airports into
rail, coach, bus and tram systems would therefore support the development of both airports and national, regional and local public transport services.
The UK was a pioneer of civil aviation and today its economy and its population is particularly reliant upon air transport. Medium term (20-30 years) forecasts indicate growth in demand driven, primarily, by economic development elsewhere in the world, especially the BRIC economies. The benefits of meeting that demand would be significant, but this will require the expansion of airports across the country. The problem is that the environmental impacts of airport operations are already adversely affecting the lives of hundreds of thousands of UK residents and
further growth will only exacerbate this situation.
The question therefore arises as to what environmental limits could be applied to airports as growth proceeds? Local air quality legislation and has already established an environmental capacity limit at Heathrow and it can only be a matter of time before airports have to manage CO2 within emissions limits. This leaves the disturbance caused by aircraft noise to communities surrounding airports, which is the single most significant local environmental impact arising from their operation. The idea, in the Consultation Document, that airports be allowed to develop but within a ‘noise envelope’ has clear merit. The challenge will be, how to agree the size of that ‘envelope’ and how it should be defined. This requires significant further research involving community stakeholders and clear guidance from Government, because the nature and acceptability of noise disturbance is airport specific and a matter of individual perception. The current Civil Aviation Bill goes some way to recognising the importance of these matters by placing transport users at the centre of CAA responsibilities and requiring the publication of environmental performance and good practice guides. However, some have argued that it does not go far enough, ignoring as it does calls for there to be a general duty upon the CAA to have regard to the environment and local communities when discharging its regulatory duties.
Air transport needs a step change to ‘carbon free’ flight
The implications of aviation for climate change are such that over the next 20-30 years, the growth of airlines is likely to become increasingly linked to the rate of development of aircraft technologies and operational practices that reduce CO2 emissions. The longer term, 50 year, sustainability of air transport, is however less certain because the sector is likely to be legacy user of carbon fuels (an a increasingly limited resource) and emitter of greenhouse gases.
The UK is a world leader in aviation sustainability issues. Multi-sectoral networks involving industry, government, academia and NGOs have been established to deliver more sustainable infrastructure, technologies, operating practices and business models. But business as usual and simple ongoing ‘eco-efficiencies’ will not be enough to meet the aviation sustainability challenge. Air transport needs a step change to ‘carbon free’ flight and this will require massive support to deliver radical new technologies, but this change will take decades and is not guaranteed. The really big challenge for government is therefore to forecast and plan for the role that air transport will play in the low carbon economy of the second half of the 21st Century and anticipated levels of Global mobility in a carbon constrained World.
Published in The House Magazine, p23-24, 12 July 2012, London: Dod’s