London Air-Quality Rules Threaten to Thwart Heathrow Expansion

Air-quality regulations threaten an expansion bid by London’s Heathrow Airport, a government adviser cautioned after recommending a new runway be built at the U.K.’s busiest flight hub.

Without new measures to curb nitrogen-dioxide emissions, Heathrow’s growth would raise pollution levels in the surrounding area, the Airports Commission said in a report Wednesday. In a “pessimistic” scenario, nearby roads would become the most polluted in the capital within 15 years, it said.

Britain has failed to comply with European Union air-quality regulations for five years and doesn’t expect cities such as London, Birmingham and Leeds to meet them until after 2030. In April, the Supreme Court ordered the government to prepare a plan this year to satisfy the rules.

“The government already faces an enormous challenge to meet air-quality limits around Heathrow,” said Alan Andrews, a lawyer at ClientEarth, which fought a five-year legal battle for the Supreme Court order. By recommending a new runway at Heathrow, the Airports Commission “has just turned that challenge into a Herculean task: sort out London’s air quality or any new runway capacity will be unusable.”

Heathrow says it can expand without jeopardizing the U.K.’s chances of meeting the EU limits.

“Our new plans have been designed around the needs of local communities and will meet carbon, air-quality and noise targets,” Heathrow Chief Executive Officer John Holland-Kaye said in a website statement on Wednesday.

1950s China

Nitrogen dioxide, or NO2, can irritate the lungs and worsen bronchitis in children. Lawmakers estimate air pollution kills as many as 50,000 people a year in the U.K., and opponents of Heathrow’s expansion include the Green and Liberal Democrat parties and London Mayor Boris Johnson, a member of the ruling Conservatives. Johnson said Wednesday he doesn’t think Heathrow’s expansion is deliverable.

“This would lead to a huge increase in noise pollution; it would lead to an increase in particulate pollution,” Johnson said in an interview on BBC Radio 4. “This is the sort of thing you could possibly have got away with in China in the 1950s.”

There are two options to expand Heathrow: build a new runway, as recommended by the commission, or extend an existing one.

“Absent mitigation, both schemes would delay compliance with the directive and hence would not be deliverable within the legal framework,” the commission said. Still, “there are mitigating actions which could be taken to reduce both background road emissions and those emissions arising from airport activities.”

Proposals to reduce NO2 include charging airlines to emit the gas, shutting down aircraft engines during taxiing, rerouting roads and remodeling airport facilities, according to the report.

A third option considered by the commission, to build a new runway at London’s Gatwick Airport, “is not forecast to cause any exceedences of legal limits by 2030,” the report shows.

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