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 Londonâ€™s main international airport should be. You will not curb the growth of global aviation by restricting one airport â€“ that will merely shift traffic elsewhere at the margin.