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COMMENTARY

Heathrow Airport is more than big enough already

THERE hasn't been a full-length runway built in south-east England, where London's Heathrow airport is located, since World War Two. With a climate crisis raging, now is a bad moment to try.

Europe's largest airport hub makes do with two landing strips (Amsterdam's Schiphol has six), and with 80 million passengers using them every year, they can't handle any more. Heathrow Airport Holdings Ltd - owned by Spain's Ferrovial SA, the Qatar Investment Authority, China Investment Corporation and other international investors - has been trying for ages to get permission to build a third one, at a cost of £14 billion (S$25 billion).

Local campaigners and environmental groups were bitterly opposed but it seemed as though Heathrow had won the battle in 2018 when the UK parliament finally gave the go-ahead. Then, last week, a top British court put a huge dent in Heathrow's aspirations by ruling that the government had failed to take account of the Paris climate agreement when it was considering the airport's expansion. Paris signatories promised to try to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The court took no view on the merits of a third runway or its compatibility with the country's climate goals; its ruling was focused purely on the way the government had gone about forming policy, and its obligations to international treaties. Still, the decision might have lasting consequences, and not just for Heathrow but for other big polluting UK infrastructure projects.

Banks and investors are already nervous about funding carbon-intensive businesses and projects. Now, we have a clear example of courts intervening too if developers - or a government - don't consider how their plans align with stopping the planet from overheating.

Heathrow will appeal against the decision, and it's wasted no time reminding Boris Johnson's Conservative government that if it's serious about opening up trade opportunities beyond the European Union after Brexit, a big airport is a pretty handy thing to have. Some 30 per cent of all of Britain's non-EU exports by value pass through the airport.

But Heathrow probably shouldn't count on much support from the government, which has gone very lukewarm on the project. First there's Johnson himself, who as the Member of Parliament for a constituency close to the airport once promised to lie down in front of the bulldozers to stop the third runway. More important, Britain has committed to cutting greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. Increasing Heathrow's passenger capacity by almost two-thirds doesn't sit well with that goal.

The aviation industry claims a mixture of new fuels, technology, carbon pricing and offsets such as tree planting can get its emissions footprint to net zero in that timeframe. But it's asking Brits to take a lot on trust. Some of the technology isn't available yet, sustainable fuels are expensive, and offsets are controversial. The industry's emissions have doubled since 1990 and are now about 7 per cent of Britain's total.

Supporters argue that if Britain doesn't build another runway, then Paris, Amsterdam or Frankfurt will expand instead - hence, there's no net benefit to the planet in hindering Heathrow.

But other European countries face similar pressure from their citizens to cut emissions. Climate change, and the increasing alarm about its impact, isn't some unique British affair. The wisdom of situating a massive hub airport just to the west of the British capital, where it clogs traffic and causes noise and air pollution, has always been pretty dubious anyway. One-third of passengers arriving at Heathrow just change planes there. That's great for Heathrow's luxury shops and its owners but of dubious benefit to the rest of the UK.

Heathrow's ability to deliver the project within the £14 billion budget is also open to doubt. The soon-to-retire boss of British Airways-owning International Consolidated Airlines Group, Willie Walsh, who's fond of criticising Heathrow's "gold-plated" expansion plans, thinks it would cost more than twice that.

Doubling down on a big dirty airport during a climate crisis is irresponsible. Until aircraft are carbon-free, we'll all need to fly less, not more. BLOOMBERG