Confessions of a Political Animal

January 27, 2009

A lighter shade of green?

third-runwayThe past week has seen a lot of column inches devoted to the increasingly infamous Boris Island Islands airport plan, with puff pieces in the Sunday Times and the Evening Standard following the Mayor’s day out in a boat with a handful of carefully selected journalists. The whole ludicrous scheme has been carefully taken to pieces by Tom at Boris Watch, whose posts someone at City Hall would do well to read.

What is fast becoming apparent is that this is the purest greenwash, designed to at once allow Boris to maintain an opposition to Heathrow’s third runway, whilst not losing ground with the Tory petrol-heads(or should that be kerosene-heads?) who consider Cameron’s opposition to Heathrow expansion to be an unforgivable concession to unwashed tree-huggers, or something.

Now, I come from the starting point of opposing all airport expansion, pretty much anywhere, but particularly in the South East. I’m invariably drawn to the position, therefore, of considering both the Third Runway and Boris Island to be two evils of pretty much equal magnitude – and therefore, on this issue, to consider Johnson and Brown to be at the same level of ecological villany. The question is, should I? Let us assume, for one rather improbable moment, that the argument in favour of increased airport capacity for London had been won. From an environmental prospect, which is the worse option of a bad choice?

To start off, we ought to consider exactly what the airport capacity will be under either proposal. As things stand, we have 6 runways at London’s airports – two at Heathrow, and one at each of the others. The proposals for a second runway at Stansted trundle towards a public enquiry, with Cameron proposingto block this runway as well as Heathrow’s. Let’s assume this one does get built, taking us to 7 runways at London airports. A third runway at Heathrow, as proposed by the government, will take us to 8. Now, Boris wouldn’t build Heathrow Three, but instead would put 4 runways out in the Thames estuary. That makes 11 runways in total – because contrary to some earlier noises, the plans to plough up Heathrow and sow fields of corn, or affordable homes, has been quietly dropped. The planning error (© Boris Johnson) that is Heathrow will soldier on with its existing two runways. So, under the Boris proposals, we have a near doubling of London’s airport capacity – and therefore presumably a near doubling of flights and emissions. Just as it has been accepted that you can’t build your way out of congestion on the roads – new by-passes and motorways quickly fill up with new traffic – the same will surely apply to airports. Build that number of runways and the planes are likely to come.

OK, so on encouraging the growth of aviation, the Boris proposals come out less green. What of the location of the proposed runways and their associated detritus? The Heathrow third runway location has many drawbacks, most notably the fact that there is a village and quite a bit of green land in the way, all of which will be lost if the runway goes ahead.

On the other hand, it can be argued that this is land which is already situated bang next door to one of the world’s busiest airports and which suffers from the corresponding levels of pollution, both in terms of air quality and noise and that it is therefore likely to be in a pretty ecologically denuded state. Having never crawled around in the undergrowth in the Sipson area, I’m not really in a position to comment authoritatively, although the Natural England website reveals that you have to travel at least two kilometres north-west from the runway site before you reach any land which is protected for ecological reasons. A look at satellite images of the area suggests that the green spaces are predominantly intensively farmed arable land, of limited (although not non-existent) habitat value. Is this a good enough justification for ripping Sipson and the surrounding area up? Not really, but there is an argument to be considered that the loss of this area in terms of ecological and quality of life utility will be limited.

If we take the option of Boris Island, on the other hand, we are faced with the prospect of introducing four runways into an area which is currently unblighted by air transport infrastructure. Now the key difference here, of course, is that this area is currently, well, water, so no-one will be knocking down a village. That’s certainly a plus for the scheme, but it doesn’t remove the ecological issues – in many ways the Thames Estuary is a far more fragile environment than the London Borough of Hillingdon. The issue of birdlife in the estuary is increasingly well documented, particularly by the RSPB, who seem to be the one environmental group who have seen through the Boris green veneer. The report ‘Waterbirds in the UK 2006/2007’ (sadly not available online, but a summary is here) lists the Thames Estuary as in the top five of key sites for water birdlife in the UK, with internationally important populations of protected species such as ringed plover, dunlin and godwits. Even if the airport is built away from the key sites for these birds, it will be almost impossible for the construction and operation of a four-runway international airport in the immediate vicinity not to have a deeply damaging effect on migratory routes, air quality, water quality and the food chain, jeopardising the area’s status as a key habitat. Even less ‘sexy’ than birds, but probably just as important, is the likely effect of the threat to marine life from the scouring and construction over of huge sections of the estuary floor – again, entire ecosystems and food chains are put at risk. Add to this the risk of leaks from the huge amounts of aviation fuel that will need to be stored on (and transported to) the islands once they are in operation, and you could be looking at a pretty impressive legacy of environmental disaster.

But that isn’t all. From the Standard article we learn that the latest permutation of the Boris Island plan is for the terminal facilities to be provided on land – with mirrored sets on both the Kent and Essex shores – and linked to the runways by tunnel. So as well as huge infrastructure constructions on sea, we are also now looking at massive land development as well. If we take the mapin the Evening Standard article as being half-way accurate in regards to the proposed locations for the terminals, you’d be hard pressed to find two more sensitive areas of Thames shoreline. The Kent terminal is plonked on the eastern end of the Isle of Sheppey, an almost entirely rural area studded with officially listed Environmentally Sensitive Areas, areas in receipt of grants for their woodland status and the small matter of a National Nature Reserve at Swale.

The Swale NNR is predominantly a grazing marsh supporting significant wintering populations of waterfowl. […] The site has an outstanding assemblage of scarce plants. Apart from waterfowl, gargany, marsh harrier, avocet and short-eared owl have been known to breed on the reserve and the area is also a hunting ground for barn owl and Montagu’s harrier. Many rare and uncommon migrant butterflies and moths can be found at the reserve.

And just one of 66 internationally protected wetlands in England. Ah well, never mind. On the other side, the Essex terminal seems to be earmarked for Foulness Island, an area with similar endangered wetland habitats to the Kent bank. Whilst Foulness is certainly not bereft of human activity, much of that, in the form of MoD training grounds, has inadvertently contributed to habitat and ecosystem conservation. We should be of no doubt as to the size of the developments required for an airport terminal. Beyond simply the buildings themselves, a major international airport has a huge landtake in terms of car parking, road and rail access, cargo storage space, offices and the like. The loss of open land and a number of homes will be all but certain, with other neighbouring areas blighted – basically the terminals will amount to the industrialisation of key areas of wetland and its hinterlands.

Certainly the Boris Island proposals are better than Heathrow in terms of noise pollution for areas without habitation, although as the plan is to retain two-runway operation at Heathrow, the proposals will simply retain the status quo for west London. Nor is the Island plan completely bereft of noise issues: whilst many aircraft approaches will take place over open sea, wind conditions (much more relevant in the Thames Estuary than at Heathrow) will dictate that approaches and departures will not be able to avoid built up areas entirely – Southend, Sheerness and the Medway Towns would all be likely to see increased aircraft noise. We can also add to this the noise pollution that the M2 link to the Kent terminal would inflict on much of the Isle of Sheppey. The Island still wins on the noise count, but not by as much as its proponents would predict – and on broader issues of location impact they are pretty much even, with Boris Island having the potential for a huge negative impact if the terminals aren’t planned sensitively.

Then the things have to be built, of course, which has its own environmental impact – the construction sector accounts for around 10% of the UK’s CO2 emissions. And whilst Heathrow Three is a big construction project, Boris Island is on a completely different scale. Can we make an estimate of comparative emissions from the two projects – not with a great deal of certainty, but the Economic Input-Output Life Cycle Assessment can provide a rough estimate, albeit based on a US perspective. According to the EI-OLCA model, economic activity relating to ‘Highway, street, bridge, and tunnel construction’ (the closest we’ve got to airport construction) to the value of $1m would generate around 752 metric tonnes of CO2 equivalent. There’s no reliable estimate for the total cost of Boris Island, but suggestions have been as high as £70bn, which doesn’t sound unrealistic. We’ll be generous here and assume a long-term exchange rate of $1.50 to the pound, producing a cost of around $105bn, giving an approximate emissions of 78.96 million metric tonnes of CO2 equivalent for the project. Heathrow’s third runway, estimated at around £13bn, would account on this measure for 14.55 million metric tonnes of CO2 equivalent. As a comparator, the government’s estimate of CO2 emissions from UK aviation for 2010 is 42 million tonnes of CO2. Add to this the fact that the model will not take into account the highly energy-intensive process of land reclamation, and Boris Island’s footprint could be still worse – at least at Heathrow the land is already there.

And then there’s the question of the impact of operating the airports. Heathrow is a poorly situated airport, there is no question of that, but London has begun to learn to cope. With the eventual opening of Crossrail, Heathrow will get what it has always needed, a solid medium-speed link to the two key centres of London’s economic activity, which will hopefully go some way towards cutting the emissions of transportation to the airport. Being just 15 miles from the centre of London, medium-speed, energy efficient forms of transport can provide perfectly good journey times, once you get round to building them. Boris Island doesn’t have that advantage – it will be at least 65 miles from Central London, requiring people to make much longer journeys.

The claim is that this will be by high-speed rail, with the high-speed element being necessary in order for transit times not to be ridiculous. And high-speed rail isn’t that green, as I’ve discussed here before. OK, so for the Kent terminal most of the route is already built in the form of High Speed 1 (the Channel Tunnel Rail Link), so that part of the environmental impact will be limited. As discussed previously, high-speed trains have a much higher carbon footprint than their medium-speed equivalents: even a 125mph capable Pendolino is 40% more energy efficient than a 180mph capable TGV. The gap with a 100mph capable Crossrail unit will be even greater, particularly when the journey distance with Crossrail is 50 miles less than with the high speed service. In the worst case, but by no means impossible scenario, whereby most of the major airlines don’t switch to Boris Island (after all, with no bill for a third runway to pay off, landing charges are likely to be much lower at a two-runway Heathrow than at a £70bn Boris Island – plus the airlines won’t have to take on the costs of transfering their operations) we could see all but empty energy intensive high-speed trains running to and fro to the Isle of Sheppey at frequent intervals. And whatever is claimed, a very high proportion of passengers will arrive by car (at Stansted, 35 miles from London, 67% of passengers arrive by private car or taxi), creating congestion on the M25 and M2 and in many cases making longer journeys than would have been necessary to travel from Heathrow.

I’m pretty sure that I have only scratched the surface of the issues here. If we are going to increase airport capacity in London, and I still don’t think we should, there is simply no green way of doing it: the choice between Heathrow 3 and Boris Island is pretty unpalatable. But what is essential is that in fighting the most pressing battle – to prevent Heathrow expansion – those who oppose expansion do not let it become a smoke screen for what is going on at City Hall. Boris Island is, I am increasingly convinced, an even worse option, particularly if it isn’t linked to a Heathrow closure or down-sizing. Dave Hill quotes Green London Assembly Member Jenny Jones, speaking at last weekend’s Progressive London conference (good write up from Dave Cole here), as saying

I’m going to give you the gist of something I wrote for the current mayor, Boris Johnson, when I felt that he didn’t understand what being green was all about…I actually made him sit down and read it. Unfortunately I don’t think it did a bit of good…I said there are three tests of faux sustainability, of false environmentalism.

Boris Island is as great an example of faux environmentalism as we are likely to see for some while. One of Jones’ tests is:

You have to ask does it cause a problem downstream? You can’t fix a problem today and create another problem tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. That is not the way forward…you have to understand the ramifications of anything you want to put in place.

Well, quite. Jones says she doesn’t think her epistle to Johnson has done any good. On the evidence of the Boris Island proposal, I’d quite agree.



  1. Six runways? How could you have possibly forgotten that famous airport, London Southend? It’s not exactly a big contender just right now, but with a dedicated train station opening later this year, and a new terminal and runway extension opening in 2011, the airport will soon be somewhat more active than the current weekly flight to Jersey. (If you forgive the pun, they’ve done mighty well to keep this below the radar so far). Southampton is also vying for disenfranchised London passengers – with an hour’s journey from Waterloo, it’s more convenient than Luton, Stansted, and maybe even City and Heathrow for South West Londoners.

    A good writeup though – I’m also instinctively opposed to expansion, but to be honest, I would probably prefer the consolidation of capacity (potentially at Heathrow) rather than have more parochial airports expand when nobody’s really watching. Boris’s work might actually be doing pro-Heathrow lobbyists a favour – “Look, we’re so desperate for additional capacity in London that even this crackpot idea is getting credence – come on, Heathrow 3 is nowhere near as bad as Boris Islands”

    Comment by Mark Lee — January 27, 2009 @ 1:31 pm | Reply

  2. Thanks Mark. The growth of ‘minor’ airports is certainly a concern. I sort of remember hearing something about expansion at Southend, but assumed it had gone the way of schemes such as Lydd and Manston. As you say, very below the radar. If Southend takes off, so to speak, that would add a further air traffic control complication for Boris Islands, I should imagine.

    Comment by Political Animal — January 27, 2009 @ 1:38 pm | Reply

  3. …not to mention the 175m high Thames Array. I can’t quite figure out if Boris Islands would just need to re-route the undersea cables, or if the turbines would be close enough to stop being a pretty view and become a navigational headache.

    I was talking about Heathrow in the pub with a mate – who was telling me that Microsoft, who’re based in Reading, are heavy users of the Seattle route from Heathrow, without whom the route would not be sustainable. I’m sure there are many many cases of such routes from Heathrow.

    Heathrow fundamentally has a wider catchment area than Boris Islands; industry has built up in west London and the M4 corridor because of proximity to the airport; executives live in Surrey and Hampshire because of proximity to Heathrow; if the promised Heathrow Hub and Airtrack schemes come to fruition, their catchment will be even wider. Airlines would be mad to up sticks and move if ever the airport were built. Heathrow may be bad, but really the main issue is that it’s a bit cramped and has too many shops – it’s not bad enough to make people want to move business or move house, or spend an additional 60 – 90 minutes travelling to the airport.

    Comment by Mark Lee — January 27, 2009 @ 1:55 pm | Reply

  4. Hmm, there should have been a link there.

    Comment by Mark Lee — January 27, 2009 @ 1:56 pm | Reply

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