Last week the project proposal for a third runway at Heathrow in London was put on hold after a successful court challenge based on climate concerns. The courts sided with the plaintiffs who argued that the proposal did not adequately demonstrate how its overall emissions impact would be managed given that the UK has now adopted a target of net-zero emissions in 2050. While the emissions from the project itself are modest, with cement probably being the largest component, the ongoing emissions from aviation expansion as a result of the project could be considerable on a cumulative basis over many years.
At this point I should note that the third runway at Heathrow has been a contentious project since it was first proposed and there are many reasons put forward as to why it should or should not be built. My focus here is on the expected expansion of aviation in and out of the United Kingdom and the resultant emissions. Aviation has grown rapidly over the half century since the introduction of the widebody Boeing 747 (by which point it had grown considerably since the first intercontinental jet services some twenty years prior), to the extent that there are now over four billion passenger flights per year globally.
Of course airlines, airports and aviation companies are responding to a strong demand signal from consumers (the UK is an island). In order to drive change consumers also need to understand their own externalities and be prepared to manage them, most likely by a cost passed through with the ticket purchase.
A 2017 UK Department of Transport assessment of aviation showed growth for both capacity constrained and unconstrained scenarios, with the low constrained case showing a 60% rise through to 2050 and the high unconstrained case showing a doubling of demand.
Heathrow consumes about 20-25 million litres of Jet-A1 every day, so a third runway would increase this by 50%, or some 10-12 million litres per day.
A double check based on aircraft efficiency and expected distance of travel gives a similar number. If we assume that the runway operates for 18 hours per day with a flight interval of 90 seconds, with 50% of the time being used for take-off, that implies 360 additional departing flights every day. If we then assume that every flight is dedicated to longer haul, say New York or Dubai, then that means about 37,000 litres of fuel per flight based on the improved efficiency for modern aircraft of about 2.2 litres per 100 km per passenger, 300 passengers and some 5,500 km of travel, or a total of just over 13 million litres per day.
The consumption of 13 million litres of Jet A-1, 365 days a year, will result in the release of about 12 million tonnes per year of carbon dioxide when combusted. So the question that needs to be asked is how the mitigation of 12 million tonnes per year will be organised such that it has reached net-zero by 2050.
The answer lies with the sector itself, not just the airlines that own the planes or the companies that make them or the airport that is building the runway or the fuel providers that sell Jet A-1. All these parties will have to collectively own the problem and set about solving it. There are already the beginnings of some answers, but efforts will need to be accelerated such that the question posed through the court in relation to the net-zero goal of the UK can be confidently answered. For example;
- Various processes have been developed to produce bioJet, including those which use municipal waste as the feedstock. These are now starting to scale in some locations.
- Air capture of carbon dioxide is emerging as a possible solution for sectors such as aviation. This would involve removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere at a rate equivalent to its emission and committing to geological storage, delivering net-zero emissions. The DRAX power station in Yorkshire is piloting one form of this technology and Carbon Engineering is building a large scale version of a different approach.
- There is some development underway for short haul electric planes, but long haul will need a very different solution. In my last post I discussed the option of hydrogen in aviation.
All the above are still in their early stages of development and deployment, with bioJet looking to be the most promising immediate option. Nevertheless, over the coming thirty years it should be possible to bring UK aviation emissions to net-zero through some combination of the above.
But who should be responsible for implementing the strategy? Within the aviation industry, a framework already exists under which all this could be managed.
The airlines have already agreed and are now beginning to implement the CORSIA framework under the auspices of ICAO. This sets out a journey through to 2035 which will see global aviation emissions limited to current levels. It includes a facility to balance emissions through a trading arrangement where they cannot be directly mitigated through fuel changes, although the final rules of this have yet to be agreed and will involve Article 6 of the Paris Agreement. In almost any aviation scenario there will be unmitigated aviation emissions in 2050. CORSIA will need to evolve further after this first phase to be aligned with the emerging net-zero goals in many countries with major aviation hubs. The trading arrangement will eventually need to focus on removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in combination with geological storage.
This form of emissions challenge to projects and development may well become more frequent, not just from campaigners but also from regulators, as the governments they represent grapple with the task of getting to net-zero emissions. There will likely be a real shift in focus from the projects themselves and their subsequent operation (i.e. Scope 1 plus Scope 2 emissions), to the broader impact they have on societal emissions (i.e. Scope 3 emissions). That will place more onus on project developers to think through and then manage the broader implications of their actions.
Reply to Shell Climate Blog of March 2020.
Written on 6th March, 2020.
Hi David, I am ex Shell Marine Technology London (Shell Tankers UK, SIM and STASCO). I understand exactly where you are coming from with your discussions and have great sympathy with your views. However, I have. spent much of the last 20 years also digging into the real science behind Climate Change and have a very good grasp of the causes and the real fears driving the Green Fear of the general public. My own views on the Heathrow situation are A ) Thank goodness the planned expansion plans are dead in their presently proposed form. B) There are at least 4 other existing near London Airports which either available with (or can be more easily and beneficently developed to provide) all of the Air travel expansion requirements for the next 10 t0 15 years. To operate at high efficiency High speed electrified rail links between all London Airports and existing or planned National rail infra structure, coupled with very urgent electrification of the National Air links to all major UK and near continent cities would provide much more benefit to the UK (and with much less trauma or interference) than the planned 3rd Runway. Much of this essential work will benefit much more than just the H row Share holders. C) Such links also form part of the essential update of the National infrastructure which is needed in order to unify the UK Much more so than trying to squeeze in yet another Golden Egg into the dying Goose which is Heathrow, it is and always has been in the wrong place. It cannot be moved. D) Better links to (Specialist?) local airports will spread the benefits from the necessary investment and could be the vital revitalising force behind the Electrification and expansion of UK Domestic and Near Continent Short haul travel. E) Plans for the design, testing and introduction of Long Haul Liquid Hydrogen Powered Aircraft must be accelerated and prolonged use of Jet A1 must be avoided at all costs. Replacement of this Fossil based fuel with Bio Derived fuels which also contain carbon must be killed off a.s.p. Carbon in the air is just as harmful whatever the source.Even CO2 capture from the Atmosphere will be wasted effort and cost if it is to be used as feedstock for more fuels and processes without 100% Carbon Capture. Extracting one GHG and replacing it with another (from any source) mearly enlarges and extends our present Climate problems. F) These new Hydrogen powered aircraft will not be available and in service for about 10 plus years, There is no source of Liquid Hydrogen or infrastructure in place(or planned) to meet their requirements. Can you imagine the costs, strife and delays when such an infrastructure is inserted into an over crowded airport such as an expanded Heathrow (or indeed any existing airport which is operating at or near capacity) while this is taking place. G) We have about 10 years to produce an independent working solution. Over that period two things can be achieved with good planning. The first depends on the urgent expansion of Offshore Floating Wind power which will produce much of our electrical requirements as well as introduce large quantities of stored power in the form of stored Hydrogen (which leads to the introduction of the infra structure for the Hydrogen economy which should be well under way before 2030-35). The other is the building of a brand new, independent Airport in the Thames estuary (Boris Island 2) which can be optimised for the new generation of aircraft, with liquid Hydrogen delivered in Bulk by LHG vessels (such as now being tested and operated by Shell and other partners). All of this could be achieved within the required time with at least one runway in full use and up to at least 3 more to be brought in to service as funds and service demand. By 2050 or indeed well before that, the UK economy and transport systems Industry and Domestic power requirements can be fully converted to Electric and Hydrogen, including all Road, Rail, Shipping and Air Transportation. The UK can be completely re-invigorated long before 2050, but the work is not ended there. Further expansion of the Green power allows Carbon Capture from the Atmosphere to be vastly and usefully expanded as Wind and Solar continues to expand into vast surplus. Drawdown and Sequestration (as solid or as gas becomes realty and commercially attractive). There should be no shortage of good well paid jobs throughout this entire period and all of the Technologies and Skills will be in demand Globally. With the drive from the New Energy Majors such as Green Shell, British Energy and help from others such as Equinor, this is all possible and should even be very attractive to them as they strive to atone for their High Carbon past.