Why Heathrow’s claim to be “Net Zero” by 2050 is rubbish

Heathrow has made much of it being “Zero emissions” or “Net Zero” saying (amongst many examples) on one of its webpages that “Heathrow goes carbon neutral and is working towards operating zero carbon airport infrastructure by mid-2030s” and “Our sights are now set on working with the global aviation industry to deliver on net-zero by 2050, at the latest”[i]

Currently Heathrow operations produce 20 million tonnes of CO2 per year[ii]. The current UK aviation total including international flights is 36.5 MtCO2[iii]. In 2017 aviation CO2 emissions were more than double 1990 levels[iv].

Therefore, Heathrow currently contributes 54.79% (20 ÷ 36.5 x 100) of the total UK aviation CO2 emissions, including international aviation. According to the CAA, Heathrow operates 21.17% of the total commercial flights to and from the UK[v] – considerably below its CO2 emissions proportion. By 2050, if allowed to expand, Heathrow would produce 21 MtCO2, having peaked at 26MtCO2 in 2030[vi], taking into account design and technological improvements. According to the Committee of Climate Change, the total aviation CO2 emissions should be reduced to 30 MtCO2 by 2050[vii]. That means that Heathrow, in 2050 if allowed to expand, would produce 70% of the total UK aviation CO2 emissions – a rise in proportion of 15.21% from today’s figure. If not allowed to expand, Heathrow’s proportion would be 46.66% of the total UK aviation CO2 emissions[viii] allowing for anticipated technological improvements – still way above its proportion of total air traffic movements in the UK

According to the Government, the UK’s largest carbon capture project to date captures just 40,000 tons of CO2 per year[ix] – that is just 0.2% of Heathrow’s current CO2 emissions, never mind any expansion!

CORSIA, the UN international agreement to limit CO2 emissions, will not be adequate, since firstly there is no offset for current aviation emissions – only growth. Secondly, the Committee on Climate Change has specifically advised that this is not enough. In its advice to the Secretary of State for Transport, it says “At the international level this includes the need for a long-term objective for the aviation sector in line with the Paris Agreement, and future CORSIA caps consistent with this that incentivise GGRs [greenhouse gas removals] for all emissions, not just emissions growth above 2020 levels.”[x] [our italics]. Thirdly, the various schemes of carbon capture are notoriously unreliable. Peat bogs get interfered with, trees get destroyed, land gets ploughed up – all over a period of 30 years or more taken to capture the carbon

Although uncertain at this stage, scientific thought is that CO2 emitted at high altitude has double the effect on global warming compared to CO2 being emitted at ground level. In addition, non-CO2 greenhouse gases (e.g. water/steam, NO2) will double the global warming effect again (making the effect 4 times greater than CO2 emitted at ground level). The “Precautionary Principle” set out in the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992 would dictate that such huge differences should be observed pending further investigation and certainty

So, question for Heathrow: How can you possibly claim with any truth that you will be carbon neutral by 2050 or earlier?

[i] See Heathrow post on 21st February 2020 at https://www.heathrow.com/latest-news/heathrow-targets-zero-carbon-airport-by-mid-2030s

[ii] Source Heathrow Consultation PEIR Vol 1 Chapter 9.7 and 9.10 and Graphic 9.7 (page 9.52)

[iii] Source Committee on Climate Change report to Parliament 2019

[iv] Ditto

[v] Source CAA figures for total ATMs at all commercial airports in the UK https://www.caa.co.uk/Data-and-analysis/UK-aviation-market/Airports/Datasets/UK-Airport-data/Airport-data-2018/ Table 6

[vi] Source Heathrow Consultation PEIR see note 2

[vii] Source letter from Committee on Climate Change to Grant Shapps MP Sec of State for Transport dated 24th September 2019

[viii] Source Heathrow Consultation PEIR see note 2

[ix] Source BEIS see https://www.gov.uk/government/news/uks-largest-carbon-capture-project-to-prevent-equivalent-of-22000-cars-emissions-from-polluting-the-atmosphere-from-2021

[x] See footnote 7

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