Infrastructural solutions to climate change

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]

2 thoughts on “Infrastructural solutions to climate change

  1. I really enjoyed this post. I think it is a great, insightful commentary about expansion, which cannot be avoided, but can be done in better ways.

    The concept of lowering the cost of items/services in non-monetary terms is interesting. I was just reading an article by one of our newsletter contributors about how standard energy has a lesser cost to the individual (monetary), but a greater cost to society (environmental impact), while new green technologies have the opposite.

  2. Hi Watershedmg, thanks for the kind words,
    I’m sure you’ll find interesting my posts about the relationship between water and energy. One of the big challenges for the 21st c is getting the true societal and environmental cost of non-renewables onto the books.

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