I was listening last December to a thoughtful presentation by a senior engineer from the Ove Arup consultancy at the New Economy offices in Manchester speaking about sustainable cities, and afterwards we got talking about what kind of airport a sustainable city would have. Doing some research afterwards, plus some further helpful discussions in the city, it seems to me that not enough has yet been written directly on this topic.
Of course, there is quite a lot said on airport design and operational details, for example, why runways are given catchy names like “26/08 L”. Economists have their data on jobs, business growth, local income and tourism flows. Transport planners have details on promoting good public transport connections. And, some environment campaigners sincerely believe that there is no place for air travel in a sustainable future.
My basic starting point is a belief: that international human and cultural contacts across continents are essential for inculcating peace and reducing xenophobia and racism. Of course, more short-haul travel should be done instead by rail and sea but there is still for me an irreducible social and political need for some air travel; along with the usual economics of trade. We need to remember, globally, that the 20th Century was very violent and deadly; and we need to craft a better future. ‘Imagine all the people living life in peace’ would be just as fitting a message as the ‘Above us only sky’ actual strapline at Liverpool John Lennon Airport. So then, given this belief, can it be sustainably achieved or not?
Firstly, if it can be achieved then it will not be through ‘shallow’ changes such as carbon offsetting or biofuels. These are just comfort blankets, and the more you look into their details the more problems they contain, for example in reducing both biodiversity and the amount of land available for food crops.
Secondly, in sparsely populated areas and spread-out settlements, the carbon footprint of air travel can be less than a network of major roads or rail lines, for example in ‘deep rural’ Australia and Africa. It would be interesting to see which USA city-to-city air routes would be lower carbon overall if replaced by high speed rail. Boston – New York – Washington by rail is already in place. For deep rural operations, propeller-driven small aircraft can be more fuel efficient than jets or helicopters, still travel fast over long distances, and land on a grass strip of less than 400m.
Thirdly, the ‘groundside’ aspects of a sustainable airport would maximise its connections with public transport, including high speed rail (such as is proposed with HS2 and Manchester Airport); and would maximise the energy efficiency of its buildings and processes, such as combined heat and power (CHP) from onsite small power stations. Car parking can be a groundside tension, because it is an income stream for the airport, its tenants and other businesses nearby, yet it is also being discouraged. Interestingly, a study by Manchester Airport showed that there were high proportions of car-to-airport journeys from nearby affluent parts of Cheshire, with public transport users mostly coming from further away as well as from less affluent areas.
Fourthly, and moving airside now: making cement and concrete globally is calculated to be creating more CO2 emissions than is air travel. Therefore there is no intrinsic reason for needing to achieve zero air travel; though of course the failure of international regulation makes tradeoffs between cement and aviation, for example, harder to achieve and impossible currently. The only coherent argument for zero aviation is one which says that CO2 levels in the atmosphere are now already so high that there is no acceptable lower limit for CO2 emissions from now on.
Fifthly, also airside: if there is someday soon an internationally agreed quota limit for CO2 emissions from aviation, what might some of its features be like? I would suggest that one key feature would be cooperation replacing competition. Some flights already include code-sharing between different airlines, so that one flight X actually carries passengers who have booked with one of two or more different operators. This could be extended, using smart allocations of aircraft size and crews to flexibly match different demand patterns day by day. The Competition Authorities would have a giddy fit; but someone has to pluck up the courage and tell them they are not always right. Competition is an imperfect science, not a religion. They might just listen to the World Trade Organisation. Next, airports are roughly divided into hubs and feeders. The hubs are more efficient and offer the volumes and range of destinations such that the smart efficiencies above could pay the highest dividends. Frankly, some smaller feeder airports may have to think instead about becoming a better rail connection to their nearest hub, and some larger feeder airports behaving more like hubs, to make the most from the quota of international flying hours available.
Sixthly, the details of what a sustainable city airport would look and feel like in the future would probably depend most on how any quota allocations were cascaded down to individual prospective passengers. For example, would the allocation be based on price alone as now, or by using new personal carbon credits, or mixed with institutional allocations such as to schools and universities, or by cashing in credits gained as a reward for previously having made other journeys by rail or sea?
Does any of this support Boris’s plan for a sixth airport for London? No, the solution to capacity constraints in and around London is for more cooperation to better use what is already there, pending the arrival of international limits.