Airport 'will save CO2 on car trips to Manchester'
Apr 10 2008 Agenda
Birmingham International Airport is to expand but at what cost to the environment? John Morris mounts a robust defence of its plans.
The climate change debate has become the biggest talking point in the UK; you only have to open a newspaper to realise that the issue is now top of the political and social agenda. It's not all the fault of air travel; the aviation industry understands how it contributes to climate change, and that a global solution is needed to a global challenge. But let's not overstate the scale of the "problem". Global aviation emissions from CO2 account for just two per cent of the man-made total, and The IPCC - Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - says that this might rise to three per cent by 2050.
The environment is being taken seriously but we also need to take seriously the economic and social benefits of aviation. Figures from Oxford Economic Forecasting put aviation's economic impact at eight per cent of global economic activity. The industry generates 29 million jobs. There are no practical alternatives to flying for people travelling over 1,500 km. Flying is no longer a luxury; it's an essential element of global society.
Aviation enables businesses to access markets and people to access friends and relatives. Every day, aviation makes a crucial contribution to the well-being of mankind, be it through the delivery of indispensable aid to the furthest corners of the globe, the fast delivery of organs for transplants or creating tolerance and understanding, by bringing people and cultures closer together. Flying improves lives, saves lives and helps to sustain a truly global society.
The UK aviation industry is in the vanguard of the global effort; it has produced the world's first sustainable aviation strategy. Other industries may talk about the issue but, despite its relatively small impact on climate change, aviation is actually doing something about it.
'Sustainable Aviation' brings together all sectors of the industry including airlines, manufacturers, air traffic control and airports, and has set out a series of commitments (such as reducing fuel burn per passenger-km, by 50 per cent, by 2020) as well as a range of other targets, together with a road map for delivering them. The industry has a track-record of delivery; for example, airlines improved their fuel efficiency by five per cent between 2003-2005.
The main greenhouse gas is CO2, which has the same environmental impact wherever it is released to the atmosphere. In other words, whether it comes from cattle, cars, boats, people or power stations, it all contributes the same towards climate change. It is not true to suggest that aviation-based CO2 emissions are "....particularly damaging'' (Birmingham Post, Tuesday 6 April); aircraft emit the same sort of CO2 as you or I do.
The industry does not ignore the potential impact of contrails, but these are not of a magnitude that justifies diverting attention from the main focus - which is CO2.
With regard to the so-called 'multiplier' effect, the science is not fully established and varies. IPCC predicts that aviation will only account for three per cent of CO2 emissions by 2050, and that total aviation-based emissions effects (i.e. including the 'multiplier') could reach five per cent by 2050.
Moving to Friends of the Earth's recent attempts to bash Birmingham City Council's emissions targets, their 'local argument' might have a little merit, if FoE had been consistent and compared 'like for like'. The emissions figures for the airport are very much a 'worst-case' scenario. They take into account the emissions of all departing aircraft, whatever their destination, for their entire journey (in other words, they count emissions in more than a hundred countries that BIA aircraft serve, or fly over). The emissions generated within Birmingham's boundary (or, indeed the West Midlands) would be a fraction of those used by FoE to formulate the argument.
Airports need to grow in a responsible way. All of our current buildings emissions are balanced through the 'Cool Earth' programme, which protects Amazonian rainforest (deforestation is the second-highest contributor of CO2). In the longer term we'd envisage a mix of this approach and carbon trading. The emissions per passenger have decreased as we have made more efficient use of the existing terminals; this trend should continue over the next few years, as new technologies are brought to bear (for instance work starting this year is expected to incorporate a ground source heat pump, reducing the reliance on fossil fuels).
A more capable airport means that emissions will also be reduced as fewer people make out-of-region car journeys, to access long-haul flights (we believe that around seven billion km of needless journeys would be 'off the road' in the years 2012-2030). This is in line with the Government's 2003 White Paper on Aviation, which stipulated that demand should be satisfied where it arises.
There's an important sense in which hard calculations underestimate the role and significance of BIA. The airport puts the West Midlands 'on the map'. The runway extension is central to delivering wider benefits to the economy: to counteract peripherality within Europe, to attract inward investment, and to encourage and assist local companies to be more outward-looking. The detractors might dismiss this as some kind of outdated regional pride - but experience all over the world shows that global gateways have a tangible benefit to their host region. The Eddington Report indicates that for every £1 spent on connectivity to international gateways, there could be a £6 benefit to the regional economy.
The environmental lobby appears to be selective about how it interprets data. With aviation there's a far bigger picture and restricting growth in one part of the world - such as the West Midlands - would almost certainly export the emissions (together with jobs and large chunks of the local economy) somewhere else.
Stopping a runway extension at Birmingham would wrench the region away from the emerging world economy, and create an economic backwater - yet the saving on global emissions would be infinitesimally small.
In fact, if you listen to those who suggest that people should use Heathrow and Manchester instead, then it is possible that overall emissions could rise. This is because it is more efficient to consolidate all those 100-mile+ trips by air (i.e. flying from Birmingham), rather than hundreds of individual trips by road to reach distant Airports.
Axing the extension would undermine some of the excellent work being done to redress the frightening situation in North Solihull, where a child born in the north of the Borough can expect to live seven years less than one born in the south of the Borough (Birmingham Post - front page, 25 March 2008). The plans to spend £1.8 billion creating the 'New Solihull' will address social needs; these plans are predicated on creating new jobs, new opportunities and some real aspirations for people. So far as BIA is concerned, there's opportunity for everything between cleaners and captains, engineers and executives - and there will be lots more in future.
Friends of the Earth attempted to cast doubt over the number of new jobs that would be created by the extended runway (based on current information we put the figure at 2,610 full-time equivalent jobs). I'll leave them to obsess over the exact number; the fact remains that there will be a lot more jobs available for local people. Since leaving the Elmdon site in 1984, the workforce has steadily increased and there are now around 9,000 more people that owe their jobs to the airport. By 2030, I expect that around 20,000 people should be able to attribute their jobs to the airport's existence.
Far from being a portent of doom, as Friends of the Earth would seemingly have it, aviation brings hope and prosperity. Note to Friends of the Earth: Sometimes it is OK for social conscience to address issues close to home - the airport company does it and that's also why the industry has consistently made commitments ahead of legislation.
On the subject of commitments, although not built into our forecasts (which are 'worst case'), the industry is now committed to the EU emissions trading scheme, which commences in 2011. This will force airlines to cut their emissions, or pay others to do it. The advantages are clear and have been endorsed by Sir Nicholas Stern. CO2 will be reduced in the most efficient way, money will go directly towards reducing emissions, large quantities will be targeted, and it will be an international scheme.
Time to debunk another urban myth - propagated by the environmental lobby and filed under 'sound-bites' into the consciousness of politicians, journalists and others who, frankly, should know better. Aviation is not the fastest growing source of CO2 emissions; Sir Nicholas Stern gave that accolade to power generation, which is set to expand threefold by 2050.
The bottom line is that we are all in this together. We should concentrate efforts where the greatest benefits can be derived, as quickly as possible (that's why emissions trading is so attractive), but we should always keep an eye on what we, as individuals can also do to modify behaviours and tackle the 98 per cent of emissions that are not aviation-related.
We all have a part to play in the global challenge that is climate change. The aviation industry is taking its two per cent seriously, and tackling it from a global perspective - the only one that will truly reap rewards.
* John Morris is head of corporate and community affairs at Birmingham International Airport.