'Greenwash' claim as runway expansion plans confirmed

The government is accused of a 'greenwash' as it confirms plans for an increase in airport capacity, including new runways at Heathrow and Stansted.

The government was accused of a "greenwash" yesterday as it confirmed plans for an increase in airport capacity, including new runways at Heathrow and Stansted. The transport secretary, Douglas Alexander, accepted arguments from airlines and businesses that the economic effect outweighed environmental consequences.

A public consultation on a third runway at Heathrow will begin next year with a view to a 2017 opening, while a second runway at Stansted could be built by 2015, under Department for Transport proposals published yesterday. The government pledged to subject expansion schemes to an "emissions cost assessment" which will judge the environmental effect of new runways.

However, the document said new capacity was vital, with the expansion of Heathrow and Stansted expected to add £17bn to the economy. "Without additional runway capacity, Heathrow's competitive position will diminish to the disadvantage of the economy and to the advantage of continental hub airports which are continuing to grow," the report said.

Air traffic in the UK will nearly double over the next two decades even if passengers are hit by environmental taxes or slower than expected economic growth, the report estimates. By 2030 the number of passengers will have climbed from 228 million to 465 million. However, plans to expand Birmingham and Edinburgh have been reined in after both said they will not need new runways until after 2020.

The report recommended changing flight patterns at Heathrow to allow take-off and landing on the same runway, which has been opposed by residents who say it will increase noise pollution. If those proposals go ahead Heathrow passenger numbers will nearly double to 128 million, which will still not be enough to meet projected demand, the report said.

The Heathrow proposals will go to a public consultation next year and must pass guidelines on noise pollution and air quality issues, which the DfT warned "could constrain" use of a third runway.

Richard Dyer, aviation campaigner at Friends of the Earth, warned that UK aviation policy was on a "climate change collision course" after the report left aviation policy broadly unchanged since the original white paper in 2003.

The environmental group has warned that carbon dioxide emissions from Heathrow flights will increase by 40% if a third runway is built. Aviation currently accounts for 5.5% of UK carbon emissions. Mr Dyer added: "It is too late to launch an emissions cost assessment when the government has already agreed to the new runways. The report looks like a greenwash."

John Stewart, of the Heathrow group HACAN ClearSkies, promised "the mother of all battles" against the proposals.


Dan Milmo, transport correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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