The Mayor's plans for Boris Island might make for good politiking, but they ignore some huge environmental challenges
Oh Boris. Boris, Boris, Boris.
So you want a new airport in the Thames Estuary and the Prime Minister should stop "pussyfooting around" and jolly well give it to you.
Not for you the tired realities that confine the man who has the job you so clearly want. You know, the boring stuff like having to govern in a coalition where your partners clearly do not want new airport capacity in the south east, having to undertake transparent consultation processes before making decisions of this enormity, and the small matter of having (sort of) won the last election with a pledge not to expand Heathrow and a promise of a full review of aviation policy.
Nope, the government should shrug off the "institutional inertia" of Whitehall, just as you have done in City Hall, shrugging off institutional inertia so successfully that you underspent the capital's environmental budget by £44m last year, continue to oversee regular breaches of air quality standards despite the threat of EU fines, and have made little discernible progress on your commitment to make London the world's electric car capital.
Ministers should learn from your love of big ideas, like, erm, a white elephant cable car across the Thames, and approve plans for a four runway airport in the Thames Estuary - of course, if people want to keep calling it Boris Island that's up to them.
In some ways this is all well and good. It is encouraging to see Mayor Boris stake out firm policy positions and let people know what he stands for. He should be praised for spelling out to the Evening Standard this week that he is for lower taxes, less regulation on business, more love for bankers, and a major new airport in the Thames Estuary. If people then want to vote for him when he makes his increasingly inevitable pitch for the top job they will at least know the amusing left-field persona comes attached to some right-of-centre policy prescriptions.
But there is something Boris, and indeed every other Conservative politician who has recently undertaken a reverse ferret on airport expansion in the south east, is guilty of concealing - the climate change impact of continued aviation expansion.
If we do have to have another debate about airport expansion (and looks like we are going to have to have one) then our political leaders owe it to us to at least acknowledge there is an issue here. You can argue about the economic necessity of increased airport capacity, the boost to international competitiveness it would provide, the merits of expanding Heathrow, building Boris Island, or simply making use of spare capacity at Stansted and Luton, but you have to also argue about the environmental implications - to do otherwise is to treat the electorate like idiots.
Producing accurate predictions for aviation expansion and emissions is impossible, but there are some general questions Boris and co has to acknowledge.
According to the Committee on Climate Change, the UK can support some expansion in aviation and meet its target of slashing emissions 80 per cent by 2050, but only if we deliver really deep cuts in other parts of the economy and only if we ensure runaway aviation expansion does not occur. This begs the question as to whether a new four runway airport is really compatible with the UK's emission reduction targets? There are plenty of respected voices who would argue it is not.
In addition, the only way that significant airport expansion can be made compatible with emission reduction targets is if aviation becomes a lot cleaner. The global industry has voluntary targets to try and curb emissions from 2020 onwards and deliver cuts in emissions by 2050 through the development of firstly more efficient aircraft, and secondly highly innovative low or zero emission flight technologies, such as algae-based biofuels and even fuel cell powered aircraft. But are these technologies viable, and if we are going to expand airports should we not be investing much more heavily in accelerating the development of these putative low emission planes? Equally, where are the long-promised policy mechanisms to encourage more efficient flights, such as the government's plans to introduce a per plane aviation levy that would encourage operators to run fuller flights?
Finally, how solid is the evidence that we even need more airport capacity? Is the emergence of high speed rail and video conferencing not starting to have the desired effect of curbing demand for air travel, just as the inclusion of aviation in the EU's emissions trading scheme raises the prospects of an emissions tax that genuinely starts to reduce demand for flights.
If the government's (and Boris') green ambitions are to retain even a modicum of credibility then any and all discussions of airport expansion have to address these issues right from the off, and that is even before you get into the issue of whether a hugely destructive airport slap bang in the middle of one of the UK's most important habitats is preferable to the more modest expansion of existing airports.
You can just about make the case for aviation expansion while addressing the environmental problems expansion presents, assuming you are willing to swallow whole the most staggeringly optimistic projections for the rapid development of more efficient and low carbon flight technologies. But the fact Boris and co are not even bothering to try and make this admittedly dubious case is simply more evidence of the disrespect being shown to entirely legitimate environmental concerns.
You can understand why Boris wants an island named after him, we all like to leave our mark, but back in the real world the UK's low carbon economy demands a far more measured debate around this complex issue - a debate that fully respects the difficult environmental realities the aviation sector faces.
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