Guest post by Matt Williams, Climate Change Policy Officer
While I haven’t been to the Lib Dem Party Conference this week (or indeed to any party conference ever before, but here’s hoping) I did note one outcome from the Lib Dem Conference with interest.
1. Staying grounded
As the RSPB’s Director of Conservation, Martin Harper, recounted in one of his recent posts, the Lib Dems deserve a bit of a pat on the back for a vote at Conference to rule out a Thames Estuary airport or new runways at other UK airports including Heathrow, Stanstead and Gatwick.
The motion that was passed (see here) - tabled by Julian Huppert MP, Co-Chair of the Parliamentary Party Committee on Transport - puts climate change limits at the heart of the UK’s approach to aviation. While Huppert’s reported opening quip was right - that ‘even the RSPB are, in principle, not against flying’ - we do believe that our climate change commitments should come first and that demand for flights should be limited accordingly.
I’ve met Mr Huppert and he’s extremely switched on to climate change, a credit to his party. His motion called for a sector-specific emissions cap and for ensuring we meet our climate change commitments by restricting aviation demand. His motion is great on the environmental specifics: calling for demand to be limited exactly in line with the Committee on Climate Change’s recommendations. These are much-needed, welcome suggestions.
2. To hub, or not to hub?
But there’s also one area where this motion falls short. It states that an independent study should look for a suitable location for a new hub airport. The most important question, which the Lib Dems have failed to ask, is: do we actually need new hub capacity?
Simply presuming that we need new hub capacity in point 8 of their recommendations undermines point 6 of their recommendations on using existing capacity better.
There are a number of reasons why calls for new hub capacity look shaky:
- Projections of long-term passenger numbers are always speculative and often prone to what’s termed an “optimism bias”. There is, however, a chance greater than zero that demand projections could be wrong and that by building a new hub airport we could end up with an underused white elephant.
- Those who argue that Britain is losing out to European competitors for business flights are ignoring the facts: Heathrow has more weekly flights to the key business destinations than Frankfurt and Charles de Gaulle combined.
- Some believe we have plenty of spare capacity in the system which could last until 2030, perhaps even 2050 – with some innovative policies, for example by shifting leisure flights shifted to the regional airports, space could be freed at Heathrow.
This call for new hub capacity, but also arguing for no net increase in UK runways seems a little confused to me. The Lib Dems seem to be yellow-lighting new capacity – hoping to identify where new hub capacity could go but also recognising important environmental limits on absolute aviation demand.
There are still two party conferences to go. What would you like to hear them say on aviation and on the environment in general?