Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The eco-unfriendly mayor

Boris Johnson's call for a 'green' airport on the Thames estuary flies in the face of his earlier opposition to expansion at Heathrow

After declaring himself a die-hard opponent of a third runway at Heathrow airport, Boris Johnson now seems to be backtracking. In his Daily Telegraph column he bets that Heathrow's third runway will never get built. It is almost a lament, rather than the cue for a street party involving tens of thousands of west Londoners. Like his backtracking over the dropping of the environmentally disastrous Thames Gateway bridge in east London, Johnson is now making statements which could be interpreted as an indictment of the government for delaying its decision on Heathrow – somewhat surprising given his promise to lobby against the runway.

The mayor puts forward a case for London needing another airport, seemingly based on the fact that he was delayed in the luggage hall at Gatwick, after his family's short-haul holiday flight to Europe. Johnson also rails against the "Pyongyang-style" announcements he was forced to endure during the long wait for his bags at a carousel. When he used this expression to refer to Ken Livingstone's administration, we assumed it was a pseudo-witty comment on the former mayor's ideological leanings. Unless he feels that the British Airports Authority has become a degenerated workers' state, it now appears that "Pyongyang-style" just means "Boris not like it".

It's obvious that London's airports are operating at full capacity during the holiday season, and delays such as the one experienced by Johnson and his family are certainly not uncommon, but the solution lies not in building another airport, but in developing a managed approach to flights. The obvious solution is to have a dramatic reduction in the number of short-haul flights from London's airports, making extra airport capacity unnecessary.

Six of the top 10 destinations flown from London's airports are short-haul (Amsterdam, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Paris, Manchester and Frankfurt), and these flights represent 14% of all London airport traffic. All of these places could potentially be accessed using a high-speed rail link, such as those being rapidly expanded across the continent.

The mayor, displaying a breathtaking lack of knowledge about flying and its environmental drawbacks, believes the long-term solution is building an "eco-friendly" airport over the bird sanctuaries of the Thames estuary. While this anecdote-turned-policy-paper might be a short-term vote winner with west London residents concerned about aircraft noise, it fails to address the fundamental flaws of the aviation industry or the reality that flying can never be environmentally friendly. It cannot be overlooked that aviation already accounts for 34% of London's CO2 emissions and is growing faster than any other source. A flight to Paris currently emits around 10 times as much CO2 as a train journey, even without the 25% reductions in emissions promised by Eurostar for 2012.

Back in February, when just a mayoral contender, Johnson joined Ken Livingstone, Brian Paddick and the Greens' Siân Berry in a full-page newspaper advert, paid for by Greenpeace, proclaiming his principled opposition to a third runway at Heathrow. Then, less than a week later, Johnson's concern for the climate change impact of new runways seemed to have disappeared, with a proposal to replace Heathrow with a whole new airport in the Thames estuary.

We have already had broken commitments on hydrogen vehicles, so why not airport expansion? It appears that the mayor is no longer "fighting" Heathrow expansion on behalf of Londoners, just betting against it. The air pollution and noise suffered by most of London is a far lower priority than ensuring Boris can jet off and jet back in comfort.

If Johnson is serious about being a green mayor he needs to swiftly rethink his policy on aviation and recognise that short-haul flights cannot be made "environmentally friendly" and therefore cannot be justified. I do wonder how many other political figures would respond to a minor personal baggage complication by demanding a whole new airport. How very Pyongyang.

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