The UK Government is under increasing pressure to clarify how the addition of a third runway at London Heathrow could be delivered without breaching air quality and carbon dioxide emissions targets.
After calling a snap general election for 8 June, the Conservative Government last month sought to postpone the publication of its plans for tackling air pollution until after the poll. However, in a victory for environmentalists the UK High Court ruled a week ago that the draft plan must be published on 9 May.
The parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) issued a report in February, in which it called on the Government to produce a new air quality strategy “to determine whether Heathrow Airport expansion can be delivered within legal air quality limits”.
It also said the Government “must not allow our air quality standards to be watered down as a result of leaving the EU”, and urged clarification on what post-Brexit air quality limits would look like.
The Government recently responded to the EAC’s report, reiterating that the draft Airports National Policy Statement (NPS), published in February, makes it clear that “final development consent [for a third Heathrow runway] will only be granted if the Secretary of State [for Transport] is satisfied that, with mitigation, the scheme would be compliant with legal air quality requirements”.
In response to post-Brexit concerns the Government pointed to its Great Repeal Bill white paper, published in March, in which it says the aim is to “convert EU law into UK law as it stands at the moment before we leave the EU”.
But this assurance has done little to assuage the concerns of the EAC chair, Mary Creagh MP, who says that “ministers are still refusing to guarantee that EU air quality targets won’t be quietly dropped after we leave the EU, have no national plan for air pollution, and their carbon calculations are a fantasy”.
Creagh, a Member of Parliament from the opposition Labour party, accuses the Government of “using this unnecessary early election to duck their responsibilities to the environment, and to the communities who will be affected by a new third runway at Heathrow”.
When the independent Airports Commission in July 2015 put its weight behind the proposal to build a new northwest runway at Heathrow, it said expansion could be achieved within environmental limits, provided it follows a package of measures. These include “a legal commitment on air quality that new capacity will only be released when it is clear that compliance with EU limits will not be delayed”.
Heathrow says it has a “comprehensive air quality mitigation strategy for expansion, including an extensive public transport plan which will limit airport-related road traffic”.
The airport in February launched a new sustainability strategy, Heathrow 2.0, in which it set out an “aspiration” to make growth from the proposed new runway carbon neutral.
“As we look to expand Heathrow with our new runway, we must tackle our impact on global climate change,” says the airport in its Heathrow 2.0 plan. “We will need radical innovation to develop solutions that allow us to meet our aspiration to make growth from our new runway carbon neutral.
“Although we don’t have all these solutions yet we have a strong history of innovation and we’re confident that the next 10 years will hold even more exciting breakthroughs than the last.”
The Government’s Transport Committee is scheduled to publish its report on the draft NPS by summer recess 2017, which is in July. Of course, with the general election set for 8 June there could be a new Government with a new view on Heathrow expansion in charge before then…