Climate change


With the prospect of a 3rd runway adding significantly to the UK’s aviation carbon emissions, Sara Furnas, co-founder of CHATR and Brent Furnas, Events Manager, CHATR, examine the impact of Heathrow expansion on climate change.

April 2016 was the hottest April in 137 years of record keeping and NASA findings show the last 12 months are the warmest ever recorded.  The rate of global warming is unprecedented.  Many scientists believe we are experiencing a climate change emergency.


A third  runway at Heathrow would mean thousands of extra aircraft roaring directly overhead, a huge increase in road congestion and ever increasing air pollution for West Londoners, but the worst effects would be felt far beyond the M25.  Damaging emissions from 250,000 extra flights per year at Heathrow would add more greenhouse gases to the already overheated atmosphere, worsening the climate change that is affecting the planet.

Animal agriculture (24%) energy (25%) industry (21%), and transport (14%), are key contributors to the greenhouse gases that are warming the atmosphere (IPCC’s figures).  By comparison aviation is currently assessed by the UK Committee on Climate change to be responsible for 6% of the UK’s greenhouse emissions.   Airport Watch and other groups have argued that aviation is the spoilt child of the industrial world, its sins winked at by governments and international agreements since the impact of aviation extends well beyond its carbon dioxide production due to fossil fuels being burned at high altitude, aircraft contrails morphing into cirrus clouds which act like wool blankets, further warming the atmosphere, where there is already too much heat because there is already too much greenhouse gas.  A new runway at Heathrow will add yet more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere and is incompatible with the UK’s climate target and obligations.


Naturally occurring greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone are continuously emitted and removed from the atmosphere by natural processes, and like many things, are fine in moderation.  In fact, without them the average surface temperature on earth would be a chilly -18˚C, and until around 1880, when humans began to mess things up, the greenhouse effect kept the world just right--not too hot, and not too cold.  Back in those Goldilocks days, there were about 278 ppm (parts per million) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, most from natural sources.  Then we began to burn large amounts of coal and oil (fossil fuels) releasing more CO2, and warming things at an accelerating rate.  In fact, as you read this, the world is heating up at a rate that equals four Hiroshima-sized nuclear bombs exploding in the atmosphere every second.  The British government has accepted we need to decrease our greenhouse gas emissions and move to a lower carbon economy.  While most other sectors are now on a path to decarbonisation, the aviation industry remains almost completely dependent on fossil fuel and is responsible not just for emitting CO2, but also the far more polluting nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulphur oxides (SOx) and soot/particulate matter (PMs). 



Climate change, like a thief in the night, is invisible; we can only see the consequences.  Powerful corporations and politicians try to convince people that it simply doesn’t exist.  Much of this denial stems from the belief that solving climate change will be prohibitively expensive.  The truth is quite the opposite: ignoring climate change will cost the global economy between $2.5 trillion and $24 trillion.  Research shows that even without climate change’s most dramatic effects, sea level rise, drought or extreme weather, the warming effect alone will reduce the world’s average income by 23%.  This is because most of us are at our best between 18˚C and 22˚C.  When it gets warmer than that, we become less efficient; productivity drops and school test scores fall.

A far more important consideration than money is human life.  Climate change degrades air quality, reduces food security, and compromises water supplies and sanitation.  The stakes are high, according to Climate Vulnerability Monitor, climate change already kills about 400,000 people a year, many of them children in developing countries.

Heat itself can kill by increasing the risk of stroke and dehydration.  Then there is disease: the mosquitoes and ticks that transmit some of humanity’s most painful and deadly illnesses thrive in the heat, which means that as the world warms, tropical diseases such as dengue fever, malaria and Zika virus will spread into more Northerly climes.

Then there’s the fact that climate change accelerates the melting of snow and ice, shrinking glaciers and reducing snow coverage.  Not only does this raise ocean levels, it could eventually destroy the source of drinking water for 200 million people.  What’s more, some of the most fertile agricultural areas in the world, such as California’s Central Valley, use meltwater for irrigation, so agricultural production will almost certainly fall.  This, compounded by a collapse in fishing yields as a result of ocean warming, ocean acidification and coral reef death, means that there will be less food on the planet in 2050 than there was in 2000.


Climate change shouldn’t have taken us by surprise: Nobel prize-winning scientist Svante Arrhenius, wrote a paper about it in 1896.  But because our CO2 emissions were far smaller then he didn’t raise the alarm.  Many decades later, in the late 1950s, American scientist Dr Charles Keeling began taking samples of CO2 in the atmosphere and found that it increased substantially each year.  In 1961 he produced a chart, now known as the Keeling Curve, showing that the level of CO2 in our atmosphere is relentlessly rising.  In fact, we’ve now reached 400ppm, leaving our pre-industrial level of 278 ppm far behind.

Like tobacco’s link with lung cancer in earlier times, climate change is gradually being accepted as real, and the Paris climate agreement reached in December last year shows progress.  The 195 countries thatadopted the agreementare committed to doing everything possible to limit global warming to 2˚C, (or ideally to 1.5˚C).  Just to keep to 2˚C, we will have to cut our net carbon dioxide emissions to zero, releasing no more CO2 than can be absorbed by nature’s carbon sinks, such as forests, oceans and rock weathering.  If we want to keep to 1.5˚C, we’ll also have to somehow suck 500 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, and put it somewhere safe--something that nobody is yet sure how to go about doing.

The UK has pledged to reduce its CO2 emissions by some 80% by 2050, and to limit aircraft emissions to 25% of that.  Even in the absence of a new runway at Heathrow, the Airports Commission predicts that aviation emissions will exceed this target.  A new runway would mean that, unless other UK airports slash their flights and other sectors take on even tougher carbon reductions, the UK’s target will be missed. 

One thing is certain--building a new runway and increasing the number of flights at Heathrow by an extra 250,000 per year will contribute to the misery of climate change, not only in London, but all over the world.  Climate change is the defining issue for the 21st century and airport expansion is incompatible with the aims and targets to reduce the effects of climate change.  Climate change is the hurdle Heathrow can never jump.

Sara Furnas is a co- founder member of CHATR and Brent is CHATR events manager

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