With the announcement that the Third Runway expansion at Heathrow (along with additional runways at Stansted and Gatwick) has been canceled because, ‘more flying was incompatible with Britain’s oft-stated goal of curbing emissions’, it is worth looking at the relationship between infrastructure and carbon emissions. (This is against the trend where airports around the world are in the midst of a major round of improvements, including JFK).
As reported in the NYTs:
The emissions were a significant factor” in the decision to cancel the runway-building plans, Teresa Villiers, Britain’s minister of state for transport, said in an interview. “The 220,000 or so flights that might well come with a third runway would make it difficult to meet the targets we’d set for ourselves.” She said that local environmental concerns like noise and pollution around Heathrow also weighed into the decision
This brings infrastructure’s role (such as runways and highways) in driving emissions to the forefront. The Engineer claims that the “third runway should in theory make air travel in the U.K. more efficient and produce less emissions” due to shorter waiting to take off and “circling”. But I strongly disagree that more runway or highway capacity is what the world needs.
Like cheaper gasoline leading to lower vehicle efficiency and more miles driven, adding more roads and runways are also an example of Jevon’s Paradox, where the reduced cost (ie time) of using a resource causes folks to use more of it. Just like when a highway gets more lanes to alleviate traffic congestion, but instead ends up having more lanes of cars traveling just as slowly. We need to build less carbon mongering infrastructure like roads and runways (and it’s not just the embedded carbon in the concrete and steel), and more energy efficient modes like high-speed rail and mass transit.
More runways = more flying = more emissions
More roads = more driving = more emissions
More high speed rail = less driving & flying = less emissions
Mass transit & density = less driving = less emissions
it’s not just the CO2 per mile that matters, it is the number of miles traveled!
When looking at the LCA of airport infrastructure, on a per mile comparison to other modes, air travel is a deceptively efficient way to travel. The footprint of the 2010 worldcup illustrates my point that is the distance traveled matters even more then how you travel…
Another story about the heathrow expansion plan:
Mikhail V Chester and Arpad Horvath, ‘Environmental assessment of passenger transportation should include infrastructure and supply chains’Chester&Horvath transpo LCA [PDF]