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The mistake in cancelling a third Heathrow runway

Robin Mills: Many of us in the UAE fly regularly into Heathrow Airport, whether for business, tourism or to return to our home country. During the recent volcanic eruption, we were reminded just how dependent on aviation is an island nation such as the UK.

Many of us in the UAE fly regularly into Heathrow Airport, whether for business, tourism or to return to our home country. During the recent volcanic eruption, we were reminded just how dependent on aviation is an island nation such as the UK. We have experienced the delays and queues at Heathrow, somewhat eased over the last two years by the opening of Terminal 5. But the Heathrow experience still compares unfavourably with the ease of moving through the spacious halls of Dubai's new terminal, while massive expansions are under way at Abu Dhabi and Sharjah, not to mention the new Al Maktoum International Airport.

And Heathrow's great Achilles' heel - its limited runways - remains. The runways now operate at 99 per cent capacity, and flights often stack up over London, waiting for space to land. Against this background, the new Conservative-Liberal coalition governing the UK has made its first big environmental decision. A third runway, approved by the previously governing Labour party, will now be cancelled.

In addition to the refusal to expand Heathrow, London's other two major airports, Stansted and Gatwick, will not be allowed new runways either. Instead, a proposed high-speed rail link to the north of England will be built. This marks a decisive shift in policy, already signposted in the three main parties' manifestos. Future environmental decisions will have a heavy state hand and be driven by political fiat much more than by market mechanisms.

The third runway has been opposed by a vocal and well-organised campaign, including Greenpeace and such luminaries as the Oscar-winning actress Emma Thompson. Yet is this latest move a decisive piece of environmental vision from the new government, or a token gesture with high cost and little real impact? The main environmental argument is that more flying will generate carbon dioxide emissions and contribute to global warming. In addition, campaigners point to the noise, local pollution and demolition of homes a third runway would cause.

Aviation has indeed become the favourite target of environmental campaigners. Yet it is the worst place to start to cut carbon dioxide. Air travel is a high-value activity that cannot easily be replaced. Increasing congestion at London airports harms the capital's already-dented position as a global financial centre. The cancellation of the third runway will mostly just shift long-haul travellers to other centres. Frequent flyers in transit know to avoid Heathrow in favour of a rival such as Frankfurt or Charles de Gaulle. A new East London airport has long been proposed. This would reduce the problems of demolition and pollution around Heathrow, albeit generating similar amounts of carbon dioxide.

Estimates of the third runway's benefits suggest its cancellation would cost the economy US$100 (Dh367) per tonne of carbon dioxide, much more than other low-carbon options such as insulating homes, building wind and solar farms and encouraging the use of hybrid cars. And air travel, though growing fast, contributes only 6 per cent of the UK's carbon emissions. Rail is a substitute for short-haul flights, but it is costly and, with the UK's budget deficit, we might wonder whether the proposed high-speed rail network will ever be built. The northern link, anyway, would serve only a third of the passengers for the new runway.

And administrative measures such as blocking a new runway are blunt policy instruments. Restraining the growth of aviation by increasing its cost or capping overall carbon dioxide emissions would be a far more economically rational way of reaching climate targets. Indeed, the EU's emissions trading scheme will cover airlines from 2012 onwards. For instance, air travel should be taxed comparably to other forms of transport, which attract levies that are based on their environmental impact. That would automatically make rail travel more competitive, without the need for extravagant government subsidies. It would also encourage airlines to introduce more fuel-efficient planes and operating procedures.

The EU has 27 air traffic control systems compared with the US's one, leading to air congestion and circuitous routes. Surely introducing a pan-EU authority would be a better place to start, but that would go against the Conservatives' anti-European instincts. Indeed, expansion at Heathrow would help to save some carbon dioxide emitted by planes waiting to land. Aviation suffers in the climate debate as it is seen as a frivolous luxury. Yet as the Icelandic volcanic disruption proved, air travel is a vital part of modern society and economy. It is essential for international commerce, and global travel builds bridges between nations.

The whole attack on flying sends the disastrous message that sustainability has to be painful and expensive. That is no way to build a coalition to deal with climate change. We need to start with the easiest, most painless cuts. Instead of protesters storming Heathrow, they could be going out to develop new gas supplies or wind farms to replace polluting coal, to enforce building regulations for better insulation, or to take efficient cooking stoves to developing countries to stop deforestation and emissions of soot.

Yes, decisions on major new projects need to be democratically and environmentally accountable. But wealthy, indebted, ageing Europe needs to find a way to resolve such projects speedily, or further lose ground to the Middle East and Asia. Robin M Mills is a Dubai-based energy economist and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis business@thenational.ae

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