Thursday, July 1, 2010

Plane Stupid, Indeed

No sooner had Britain's new Prime Minister, David Cameron, moved into No. 10 Downing Street, than his government cancelled long-mooted plans to build a third runway at perennially congested London Heathrow airport. For good measure, Cameron decreed that no new runways will be built at London's secondary but still large and busy airports Gatwick and Stansted, either. The government cited reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and reduction of aircraft noise as the main reasons for scuppering new runways.

The decision has been hailed by British environmentalists such as the anti-flying group Plane Stupid as a solidly 'green' move. But is it? Is opposing the expansion of flying in a major developed nation that serves as a world transport hub desirable and practical? Cameron has proposed funding high-speed rail projects instead of building new airport runways. That's half-right. High-speed rail is indeed needed, but must it be either/or? Why not have both?

Don't get me wrong - I am a fan of high-speed trains, and rail is a fine mode of transit in densely populated Britain and continental Europe. But can land transport provide the efficiency, volume and speed needed in an interconnected global economy when aviation is constrained? When ash from the Iceland volcano disrupted European aviation this past spring, we saw what happens when aviation is crippled: Just-in-time deliveries that weren't, fruit and flowers rotting, millions of travelers grounded, their plans dashed. Cancelling the badly needed runways in London won't have a similarly sweeping effect, of course, but it will hamper transport at a time when modernization is needed.

There are additional sticking points: Some travelers will find nearby airports more attractive - Amsterdam, for example - and fly anyway. Others will drive to British destinations, increasing accident rates, further tying up already congested British roads - and, ironically, pumping more carbon and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than those emitted by aircraft. Aircraft, which are becoming markedly more fuel-efficient, account for 2 percent of global greenhouse gases. In developed nations, that figure is more like 6 or 8 percent, but that is still relatively low compared to motor vehicles - not to mention dirty factories and polluting power plants.

David Cameron's decision is undoubtably well-intended, but the price that will be paid for this flawed version of environmentalism is dear. Plane stupid, indeed.

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