Third runway or kangaroo farm? You decide

Chief Reporter
The Engineer

There’s an argument that the UK’s new coalition government picked the wrong fight this week in the battle against climate change when it announced plans to cancel a third runway at Heathrow Airport.

It’s an undeniable fact the airport is overburdened with the number of aeroplanes needing to take off and land there already. A third runway is at the moment the most practical solution to the backlog.

This idea has likely entered the minds of many of us while sitting in nose-to-tail traffic on the tarmac at Heathrow waiting for our flight to take off. Or as we’ve watched the same scenes pass again and again out the window as our arriving aeroplane circles behind others around the airport in a seemingly endless game of musical runways. All the while, emissions spew into the atmosphere.

A third runway should in theory make air travel in the UK more efficient and produce less emissions.

Other measures for efficiency such as smarter air traffic management could also make a positive environmental impact.

Matthew Knowles, a spokesman for the Society of British Aerospace Companies, told The Engineer last year that air traffic management is currently based on ground-based radar, but in the future we will see satellite based or possibly even unmanned aerial vehicle guidance.

The goal will be aircraft that fly along more direct flight paths. Knowles explained the reason this is a challenge in the European Union is that Europe is the same size in terms of land mass and area as the US. Yet while the US has one air traffic control system, Europe has 27.

‘When you fly from one [European country] to the other you can’t really fly in a straight line,’ he said. ‘So you’ve got to head off in all different directions, burning extra fuel, creating extra emissions.’

Some may argue that a new runway would only encourage airlines to increase the number of fights and therefore emissions. This could be an outcome but the government has the right to take appropriate measures such as flight taxes to curb excessive air travel especially between domestic locations. 

Let’s not be too quick to demonise air travel though. Figures show aviation currently contributes six per cent of CO2 emissions in the UK.

And when looking at emissions as a whole, the amount that spews out the back of aeroplanes is nothing in comparison to the wickedly polluting cows and other cud-chewing livestock known as ruminants.

According to the popular economics book Superfreakonomics, the methane these ruminants emit is thought to be 25 per cent more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Moreover it is claimed the world’s ruminants are responsible for 50 per cent more greenhouse gas then the entire transportation sector.

That doesn’t mean saving the Earth requires a vegetarian lifestyle. As I just learnt on my recent trip to Australia, kangaroos, by some freak of nature, do not emit methane.

How about it then. Roo-burger, anyone?