Major new airport runway nixed because of the warming planet [Mashable, 28/02/20]


Some 80 million passengers fly through London’s Heathrow Airport each year, but to boost its capacity by another 50 million, the airport seeks to add a third runway. This could make Heathrow, by far, the busiest airport on Earth.

But three UK judges on Thursday blocked the construction of a new, more than 10,000-foot-long stretch of asphalt. In a lawsuit brought by environmental groups, the judges found the government’s runway plan failed to consider how the added air traffic — which will emit prodigious amounts of heat-trapping carbon dioxide — would impact the UK’s commitment to slash its carbon emissions, as agreed to in the historic Paris climate accords.

The lapse is “legally fatal” to the runway plans, the judges wrote.

“The Paris Agreement ought to have been taken into account by the Secretary of State in the preparation of the [runway plans] and an explanation given as to how it was taken into account, but it was not,” they said. 

The new runway, however, could still potentially get built one day — if Heathrow explains how it wouldn’t hinder the nation’s aims to ambitiously slash carbon emissions. (The judges emphasized they can’t totally ban a third runway, only that the plans for the runway didn’t take into account the nation’s Paris commitments.) 

But when it comes to carbon emissions, airplanes have a big problem. That’s because big airliners — which make up around 95 percent of commercial aviation emissions — will continue to burn liquid fuels, at least through much of the century. “We will continue to use jet fuel for as far as the eye can see,” Delta CEO Ed Bastian said earlier in Februray. And jet fuels are largely made from oil products. 

A chart showing carbon emissions from planes.
A chart showing carbon emissions from planes.

Today’s judgment is a major victory for all Londoners who are passionate about tackling the climate emergency and cleaning up our air.

If airlines want to boldly slash emissions, however, they have an option: fuels made from plants, commonly called biofuels. Yes, when burned in an engine, biofuels will still emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. But, critically, biofuels don’t require that any new oil be fracked and drilled out of the Earth, adding new sources of CO2 to the air. 

“Instead of releasing carbon as CO2 that’s been in the earth for billions of years, this is from a plant,” Andrew Sutton, who works on the chemical energy storage team at Los Alamos National Laboratory, told Mashable

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