NATS says improvements in air space management helped cut aviation emissions by more than 200,000 tonnes last year
With the government under fire from environmental campaigners over its vote to approve the third runway at Heathrow, air traffic control operators NATS provided a timely gift yesterday with confirmation that improvements in airspace management helped slash emissions last year.
The company released fresh figures confirming more than 200,000 tonnes of aircraft carbon emissions were saved last year, equating to £30m in fuel cost savings and contributing to an overall cut of 6.4 per cent in CO2 per flight since 2008.
The savings are primarily the result of more direct routes, the use of more continuous climbs and descents, and the introduction of new air traffic management technologies.
The company said more than 30 procedural changes have been introduced over the past year to find better and more efficient routes for airlines in the upper airspace, while upgrades to systems at the Prestwick Control centre has helped cut 147,160 tonnes of CO2 emissions from transatlantic flights.
In addition, the firm has launched a new initiative to provide more environmental data to airlines, in a bid to 'nudge' pilots to embrace more efficient techniques.
Ian Jopson, NATS Head of Environment and Community Affairs, said the latest figures provided the confirmation the company was continuing to make progress tackling emissions. "It's now been a decade since our environmental programme was launched and driven by the passion and enthusiasm of our employees we have achieved some ambitious improvements in how our airspace is managed," he said. "These are delivering big benefits both to our airline customers and the wider environment."
He added that the company would keep working to curb emissions. "As our airspace gets busier we will continue to work with our airport partners and local communities to help address issues around noise, and to deliver the major airspace modernisation programme the UK needs to meet our future capacity and sustainability aspirations," he said.
However, the results, while welcome, are likely to provide cold comfort to campaigners who are now set to step up their opposition to the plans for a third runway at Heathrow.
The government won the vote to approve the plans last night with a far larger majority than expected of 415 votes to 119.
The result sparked fresh protests from opponents of the scheme and confirmation wide-ranging legal action will be launched in a bid to block the project.
Greenpeace UK confirmed last night that it will join a legal challenge already backed by a group of London councils and Mayor Sadiq Khan.
"This Heathrow flight has failed all safety checks, yet ministers have boarded it anyway and persuaded a majority of MPs to go along with them," said Greenpeace UK executive director John Sauven. "But we can't just look the other way while the whole dashboard flashes red with warning lights. The UK government won't be able to tackle illegal levels of air pollution, never mind leaving a healthier environment to the next generation, if a new Heathrow runway is built. If ministers don't want to uphold the laws protecting us from toxic fumes and climate change, we're going to ask a court to do that."
Meanwhile, James Thornton, CEO at law firm ClientEarth, said there were serious questions over the legal basis for Heathrow expansion.
The government and Heathrow have consistently argued that improvements in aviation and transport technology, plus other policy measures, mean a third runway can be delivered without breaching air quality rules and long term emissions reduction targets.
But critics maintain the government's projections are based on unreasonably optimistic assumptions, while the Committee on Climate Change recently warned that action will be required to ensure future aviation emissions do not breach the Climate Change Act.
Air traffic controllers may be helping to curb emissions per flight, but the industry's overall progress in delivering the biofuels thought necessary to cap overall emissions while flight numbers rise has been painfully slow. Meanwhile, the government has shown little appetite for imposing the high carbon taxes that the Airport Commission suggested would be needed to ensure Heathrow expansion does not jeopardise the UK's climate targets.
And then there is the elephant in the room provided by air quality rules.
Ministers have said they will only approve the project if it can be shown to meet environmental rules, and have suggested they could fine Heathrow or even ground flights if promises relating to environmental impacts are not met.
Thornton said that in arguing that consent for Heathrow expansion must be refused unless the airport can prove that a third runway would not affect the UK's compliance with air quality rules, the government has "taken arguably one of the most difficult aspects of this application and dumped it on the planning inspectorate to sort out".
"The Department for Transport's own analysis says that there is a high risk expansion will delay compliance with air quality laws," he said. "In the meantime, the scheme will leave people exposed to more air pollution. This is in direct contravention of the government's obligations and disregards some of the court findings in our successful legal challenges against ministers. At the same time, the government shows no sign of facing up to the implications of airport expansion for its climate change commitments. Either we put the brakes on aviation expansion now or we accept that, even though the UK has committed to cutting its carbon emissions, when push comes to shove we're content to see them grow."
He added the law firm, which has already defeated the government in court three times over its air quality strategy, "will be watching the process closely". The government can be assured they will not be the only ones.
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