Heathrow and CO2

Yesterday we were meant to have a debate on the future of Heathrow. It is not an easy decision for a government to make. Those of us representing people living within range of the airport would like better noise controls and quieter aircraft, with reductions in the unpleasant exhaust emissions of planes. We can also see that the UK needs a major international airport in order to sustain itself as a favoured location for inward investment and business service activity, and as an embarkation point for a major trading nation that needs to allow its business people to fly to the five continents to sell goods and services. Heathrow is too small for current use, let alone for the likely growth in air travel in the years ahead.

This important subject was introduced by the Lib Dems in a motion which they themselves admitted they had drafted incorrectly. They used the debate to retail a series of tired half truths and errors about carbon dioxide and climate change, instead of getting to grips with the difficult realities of the popularity of aviation and the problems with any location for additional airport capacity. The prejudices on parade included the following strange ideas:

1. More planes landing and taking off at Heathrow would be bad for CO2 emissions so it would be better to prevent growth at Heathrow.
This would by common agreement merely divert this growth to Skipol, Charles de Gaulle and other overseas airports, so it is difficult to see how this would help curb overall CO2.

2. Trains are green.

Trains also burn fuel leading to carbon dioxide emissions. Electric trains are especially fuel inefficient, as there is a large primary fuel loss during the electricity generation phase, and a further energy loss when the electric energy is turned into mechanical energy by the engine. The relative contribution of train travel to carbon dioxide generation depends on proper analysis of the fuel efficiency and age of the train engine, the weight of the train, the number of passengers using it, the way the electricity was generated, and comparable details for competing travel modes. The train is not always greener.

3. Buses are green, cars are not.

Again, there needs to be proper analysis. The average bus is old and fuel inefficient, and has few passengers. The bus is only a greener way of travelling where it has a new fuel efficient engine and sufficient passengers, or where there are large number of passenger using it at the same time.

In the many debates we have about CO2, with more coming soon for the Climate Change Bill, there is usually a concentration on the CO2 generated by planes and cars, with much less attention given to the bigger amounts created by the domestic heating boiler, by commercial and industrial space heating and cooling, and by power generation itself. Some now point out that nuclear power is not carbon free, as substantial amounts are given off in making the concrete and the metal parts to build a nuclear power station in the first place. Similar calculations are not brought into the equation to deal with the concrete used in railway sleepers and steel used for rails for new train track.

It is high time we had a sensible debate about CO2, with a broader understanding of its multiple origins and sources. It is difficult to understand why the plane and car get such a bad press, yet the often worse inefficient domestic boiler gets away with it. It is frustrating that many of the climate change regulators and officials work in well heated offices in winter, sometimes with air conditioning in the summer, yet their space heating and cooling never becomes an issue. In many places we leave street lights on all night, public office buildings are often left heated and lit after the employees have gone home, whilst in some cases offices are heated to higher temperatures in winter than some are cooled to in summer.

I am all in favour of having a drive to raise fuel efficiency across the board. We need to do so at home and in the office as well as on the road, in the air and on the tracks. We need a government which takes its duty to save us money on its own energy bills much more seriously: the public sector should pioneer new and old ways of saving energy and cutting emissions. This is not the same argument as the argument about how large and where London’s main international airport should be. You will not curb the growth of global aviation by restricting one airport – that will merely shift traffic elsewhere at the margin.


  1. Brian Tomkinson
    April 3, 2008

    Above all we need honesty about what needs doing and why. Sadly, that seems to be completely lacking amongst too many politicians who see causing a scare and then "tackling it" with higher taxation as a way of raising money without incurring the opprobrium of the public.

  2. Neil Craig
    April 3, 2008

    I agree that much of the love of trains & is merely because they are "green" tokens rather than actually using any less fuel per passenger. They are mass people movers rather than flexible individual ones & thus appeal to the more old fashioned sort of socialist who believes in a mass regimented society. The LibDems are full of such people & there are even quite a lot left in Labour.

    On electric trains my understanding is that though conversion takes place twice the conversion of electricity to motion is very efficient & that the conversion of heat to electricity in generators can be done much more efficiently in large power stations (35% efficiency) than in moving trains (20%) so that, overall, efficiency is about the same. Of course if the electricity is produced in a nuclear power station no CO2 is released.

    As a general rule the least resource using method requires least of the value measuring instruments we call money & is thus the cheapest. This fact does not appeal to those "greens", certainly the majority among activists, who are more interested in overthrowing capitalism & establishing a new system with themselves in charge than anything actually to do with the environment.

  3. Stuart Fairney
    April 3, 2008

    Guido Fawkes covers the "trains are green" illusion very well on his blog, with your permission


  4. Ed
    April 3, 2008

    I have often wondered why, instead of 101 interventions, we don't have a simple state-intervention in the carbon "market" and set a price for carbon emissions. The price could be set with a target similar to the Bank of England e.g. a 3% annual cut might require a certain "price" to emit carbon dioxide. The "price" would be charged to the people who burn the coal/gas/oil or make the concrete and steel etc.. It would be much simpler than having endless debates about whether building new roads and airports encourages carbon emissions. This *is* one of the areas where European co-operation could work, too.

  5. riddiford
    April 3, 2008

    As usual a calm and dispassionate observation of the possible inconsistency.

    What I would like to know is just suppose… that CO2 keeps on increasing no matter how caused and the planet gets colder and colder ?

    The ARTIC is bigger and colder already.

    Why is a few degrees of warming harmful ? I can think of many reasons why it would benefit mankind.

  6. Freeborn John
    April 3, 2008

    Heathrow has a massively beneficial economic impact on the South East, especially on FDI into the M4 corridor. While there is an argument for ensuring that it remains the busiest airport in Europe I feel its real value is in traffic originated or terminated in London and it may be better to encourage transit traffic to go elsewhere. As a former resident of Windsor I can certainly attest to the noise problem, which was akin to Chinese water torture with a crescendo of noise building up every 90 seconds from 6am until close to midnight.

    The one area I might disagree with your post is related to trains. As the supply of oil diminishes in the coming decades it seems inevitable to me that electric-powered trains will become increasingly important. I myself persisted in using the Waterloo-Reading line for a number of years to commute to work in South Reading (and indeed to Heathrow via Feltham) but ultimately returned to the car out of sheer frustration. The fundamental problem is that the trains do not really go where people want, which is only made worse by the high cost, unpredictability and strike-prone workforce. The building of a new station in South Reading on an existing line – reportedly the first in Britain for 50 years – is a sign of some much needed fresh thinking, but much more needs to be done. There must be many other such places in Britain that could be reached on existing train lines if only there were more new stations built close to business parks. It would be even better if there would be small trains running every 5 minutes rather than lumbering giants that you have to wait half an hour for. I believe (based on comments from former Japanese colleagues) that the UK train service is a real disincentive to FDI into the UK so we should not just think that airports are the overriding transport issue for overseas investment. As an absolute minimum Heathrow should be reachable by direct train services from the west, for example by building a rail spur from the Reading-Waterloo line at Feltham. How Terminal 5 was approved without this I do not know.

    Reply: Like you I want more frequent trains. The problem is the technology – our local lines can only take about 24 trains an hour given signalling and braking constraints, and the lines are full at busy times of day. That is why I support different technology to increase the number of "trains "that could use the track or line space.

  7. Richard Fletcher
    April 3, 2008

    It's very easy for people to unknowingly fall into the trap of instantly assuming something is better for the environment just because it appears so on face value, or because they are constantly bombarded with ill-founded propaganda. I would like to see government provide more numerical information about the environmental impact of so-called green alternatives so that we can be confident we are taking the right steps in our day-to-day lives, as well as knowing when we are being placated.

  8. DennisA
    April 3, 2008

    The whole carbon dioxide issue is a scam: fortunes are being made, taxes are being raised and it is the poor who suffer; research funding is totally skewed to "impact" modelling, which is why we get the continual ramping up of scary scenarios.

    IPCC is a political construct and is most definitely not the "consensus view of some 2500 scientists worldwide". It is heavily influenced by NGO's, as is our government and opposition. Greenpeace were part of the writing team for the Summary for Policy Makers. Friends of the Earth are heavily involved with the Tyndall Centre in promoting the Climate Change Bill, as described here on a regional FoE site:

    Wednesday, 2 April 2008

    Sometime this year, the UK will be the first country in the world to have enacted a legally binding framework requiring the government to reduce the country's climate change emissions by a fixed % every year in order to reach a long-term target by 2050. We know this because the Bill, originally proposed by Friends of the Earth, is now supported by the government and all opposition parties.

    This will be incredibly damaging to the UK for no measurable effect on climate and is all based on flawed interpretations of the impact of CO2 in the atmosphere.

    In a paper presented at a 1992 Conference in Hawaii, on “Climate and Volcanic Aerosols.' Dr. T. Segalstad, from the University of Oslo, determined that:

    "At least 96% of the current atmospheric CO2 comes from non-fossil fuel sources; that is, natural marine and juvenile [volcanic] sources. Hence for the atmosphere CO2 budget, marine degassing and juvenile degassing (from volcanic eruptions) are far more important, and the burning of fossil-fuel and biogenic materials much less important, than hitherto assumed."

    Temperatures have not increased since 1998, whilst CO2 levels have risen. From the 40's to the 80's temperatures declined at a time of increasing CO2, yet the coldest period, 61-90, is the period regarded as "normal" for current comparisons.

    With the coldest winter for some time over the Northern Hemisphere, we are still propagandised daily on "Global Warming".

    I just hope that a major party will sometime soon have the courage to expose the Emporor's New Clothes, before much more damage is done. I believe the current public mood is ready for the really inconvenient truths about global warming because their credulity is stretched to breaking by real world obsrvations.

  9. Adrian Windisch
    April 4, 2008

    John, we've had this argument before. Where do you get figures that say cars are green and trains aren't?

    London to Paris by Eurostar 22 Kg/CO2
    London to Paris by Plane 244 Kg/CO2
    by Small Car 44kg for 1 passenger, 22 for 2
    Large Car 88kg for 1 passenger, 44 for 2
    Coach 30.5kg
    (213 miles)

    If your worried about old buses and trains, campaign for new more efficient ones, I do. You say your interested in increasing efficiency, thats great, promote smaller cars. You think planes can go on increasing as the airlines predict and other airports will pick up any increases if Heathrow doesn't, but by then peak oil will mean fuel for planes will be very expensive. We need to invest in renewables so we have a future with some energy.

    Your right to call for a debate on this, we need action now.

    Reply: Your figures make assumptions about the number of people using the train. If you look across the whole network and at all times of day passenger numbers of public transport do n ot met your favourable calculations. I do campaign for more fuel efficient transport of all kinds.

  10. Steven_L
    April 4, 2008

    The best bit is, in these flagship new 'eco-towns' they want to introduce speed limits that force the population to stay in second gear.

    If I was tasked with designing an eco-town I'd try to keep pedestrians away from traffic using subways, fenced off roads, good parking facilities and pedestrianised commercial areas. That way I'd hope to keep the bulk of the traffic moving as efficiently as possible, ideally in 5th/6th gear.

    Instead they want us all to drive around in 2nd – what a bunch of nutters!

  11. Peter Hardy
    April 4, 2008

    You do not seem to have said where you think London's major airport should be, though. Whilst there is (just about) room for a small third runway there, there is no room for a fourth or a fifth which (if we are to believe the seers of the industry) we will need by some time next week. Do you think Heathrow is the right place for this or should we be looking elsewhere?


  12. JohnD
    May 20, 2008

    Re.: "Electric trains are especially fuel inefficient, as there is a large primary fuel loss during the electricity generation phase, and a further energy loss when the electric energy is turned into mechanical energy by the engine." I find this rather a puzzling statement. Given that high-speed diesel trains convert all their locomotive power into electric power for traction using a relatively inefficient diesel engine, how can this be? Diesel engines for rail traction are inherently inefficient (start-stop-brake-accelerate), whereas electric powered ones are far more efficient — especially where there is regenerative braking that returns electricity to the grid (saving wear and tear on brakes as well).

    Reply: I think you do agree you need to calculate the energy loss on power generation as well as in the loco. I was not saying diesel trains are fuel efficient.

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