Expanding Heathrow: Saving Time, or Killing the Planet?

In October 2016, Parliament controversially approved plans for the construction of a third runway at Heathrow Airport. Debate continues to surround this issue, with the arguments for and against being centred around two key points. Those in favour of the construction trumpet the various economic and infrastructure benefits this development would facilitate. However, those opposed highlight the multitude of issues and environmental concerns associated with the additional 260,000 flights the new runway would accommodate each year. The question remains: As engineers, which was the ethically justifiable decision?


Expansion Controversy

The primary reason as to why the additional runway at Heathrow is such a contentious issue is the vast increase in air-traffic it will bring to the airport. It will cause a considerable increase in air and noise pollution in the surrounding area, compounding the already serious problem of crowded skies (London is the most overflown city in the world!). There is also the considerable effect this will have on Britain’s efforts to meet its carbon dioxide emission targets, as mandated by the Paris Climate Agreement. However, when considering the ethics of this development, the probable inevitability and host of potential benefits must be accounted for.

“… the wider economic benefit of the runway will be in the region of £60 billion…”

Firstly, from a Utilitarian perspective, a case can be made for the advantages of the runway far outweighing the disadvantages. It is estimated that the wider economic benefit of the runway will be in the region of £60 billion over the next 60 years, and it will generate around 77,000 new jobs. There is also the issue of Heathrow’s status as the UK’s main hub for aviation freight; in 2015, the total freight from Heathrow was almost double the amount from all other UK airports combined. Heathrow is currently operating at capacity, and therefore cannot accommodate new business. The additional runway would allow the airport’s freighting to grow in-line with the trade needs of the UK, preventing business from moving to other European hubs of aviation, such as Amsterdam or Frankfurt. In a time of Brexit-induced economic uncertainty, the importance of reliable economic assets such as this cannot be understated.

Air Travel Popularity Will Increase Regardless

Another key argument in this debate is the probable inevitability of this development.  The popularity of air travel is continuously increasing and hence it is crucial that the UK increase its capacity to support this. This increase in popularity is even noticeable in the short term; January 2017 showed a 9% increase in flights abroad for UK citizens compared to January 2016. A potential ethical framework to consider for this point is the Freedom Principle; in the UK, demand outweighs supply for air travel, which allows airlines to hike their prices. The additional runway would allow supply to catch up with demand, hence allowing more people access to air travel.

High Speed Trains: The Green Alternative?

An alternative solution to the expansion of Heathrow, which still addresses the UK’s increasing transportation needs, is increasing rail infrastructure, such as High Speed 2 (HS2). Expanding the UK’s rail network offers the potential to meet domestic and European transport needs, whilst having a far lower environmental impact than air travel in terms of carbon emissions. Although comparatively lower speeds currently places rail travel at a disadvantage compared to air travel, a high-speed network could negate this especially when considering long check in times and security procedures at UK airports. It can be seen from comparing the train speeds in the UK to those of France, Spain and Germany that there is a potential for improvement.

“…the effects of travelling by plane may cost millions of lives due to the effects of climate change…”

Furthermore, increases in aviation efficiency are unlikely, which is problematic as over 95% of Heathrow’s carbon emissions are from the aircraft. However, there is the potential for very low carbon electric trains in the future. From a Utilitarian viewpoint, it can be seen that whilst travelling by train will cost a relatively few number of people a few hours of their time, the effects of travelling by plane may cost millions of lives due to the effects of climate change associated with increased emissions.


A Responsibility to Cut Emissions

Another factor to consider is the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris and the subsequent Paris agreement, in which several countries agreed to make a conscious effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions contributing to climate change and global warming. This gave engineers a responsibility to ensure that their decisions will aim to reduce climate change and not just satisfy end users.  Expanding the rail network can be seen as the ethically correct decision from Kant’s deontological perspective, since it is a low carbon alternative for the UK that meets the requirements of the Paris Agreement to a greater extent than air travel. Not directly addressing the issue of climate change (by seeking low carbon transportation alternatives) not only sets a bad precedent amongst other countries in the Paris Agreement but also violates Kant’s ethical theory.

Expanding further upon Kant’s ideas; if everyone in the world were to use air travel for short haul journeys, the environmental effects on the planet would be catastrophic. Whereas if everyone were to use trains to the same effect, the environmental impact would be far less significant. In fact, other than plans for HS2 cutting through the Chilterns, little additional environmental damage will be inflicted.

The Ethically Justified Action

Whilst the growing demand in the UK’s transportation sector must satisfied, the large environmental impact of an additional runway at Heathrow deems expansion unethical. Pursuing alternative solutions, such as expanding high-speed rail routes, is the more ethically sound route due to the greater scope for reducing the environmental impact. This, coupled with a responsibility for engineers to actively cut carbon emissions and adhere to the Paris Agreement, further leads to the conclusion that the expansion of Heathrow is unethical, despite the potential economic benefits of an extra runway.

Group 17: David Mansley, Murray Rutley, Mark Morrow & Cameron Taylor


27 thoughts on “Expanding Heathrow: Saving Time, or Killing the Planet?

  1. A little bit off topic but, with livestock accounting for around 14-18% of the worlds carbon emissions, if we were to cancel this out then would we care so much about the expansion of Heathrow?


  2. What about sensory impacts (Noise & Visual) of constructing high speed railway links up and down the country? Notably in sensitive areas such as AONB’s? Furthermore the benefits of rail links such as HS2 have yet to be realised and may not have the desired effects.


  3. For a long time I have blown the proverbial ‘construction trumpet’, and blown it loudly. However, I agree with the authors that expansion does not need to disproportionately harm the environment. It is clearly rational that more ethical alternatives should be prioritised.


  4. Fundamentally it is not the runway which is the issue its the aircraft which use them. High speed railway is certainly one alternative, although unfortunately it is an expensive one. Perhaps cheaper eco friendly alternatives are out there? Ones which dont require vast infrastructure prone to damaging the environment. I would suggest a combination of gliders, blimps and camels.


  5. I think that the most environmentally ethical decision would be to employ railways as opposed to a third runway as even though this would still contribute to climate change, it’s impact on global warming is more acceptable than that of a third runway at Heathrow.




  7. A good read – I cannot understand this government’s inability to look beyond lucrative short-term investments such as this and spare a thought for the generations to come!


    1. I am all for protecting our environement for the future, but so often progress will ultimately prevail despite protest. Balance is whats required and intelligent negotiations to ensure best outcome.


  8. I am firmly on the side of developing the railroads. If you’re going to sacrifice the health of the planet for a short-term economic outcome, you don’t deserve a healthy planet or a good economy. It’s just short-sighted.
    One point you had on the side for adding the runway was that it would create jobs. Wouldn’t developing the railroads also create jobs?
    If those flights aren’t available then they won’t be taken and the emissions won’t harm the planet! The beauty of the railroad plan is that it avoids the current flight supply and demand problem (which is a very bad problem) by offering a cheaper solution.
    And in any case, the cost of air travel is increased by free market competition just as much as supply and demand, if even more so.
    It is so difficult to convince people to sacrifice their convenience for the planet. If you built the new runway, of course people would take advantage of it. Better guide people into making greener decisions through behavioral economics. We should all be doing more to reduce carbon emissions.
    Thank you!


  9. Flights London to Edinburgh return in one months time: £49 1 hr 20 mins. Train London to Edinburgh in a months’ time, return ticket, £375. 4 hours 20 minutes. Until train prices can match and beat air prices consumers will vote with their wallet and feet. Even with reduced prices the inability to have direct travel will always make rail the less likely alternative. Aberdeen to Birmingham is about 8 hours by train with 2-3 changes. 2 hours by air. Air travel will continue to increase and Heathrow expansion is therefore a necessity, unless an alternative venue can be agreed upon. This is despite environmental impact. It is for the engineers to accept this and look for alternative ways to limit the harm to our surroundings and protect future generations.


  10. Some interesting points made in the article.

    I disagree with the premise that improving the UK rail network would mitigate the need for expansion of Heathrow. 94% of travellers going through Heathrow are from international destinations. The UK needs a hub airport in order to compete international, especially with the need to put on new routes to connect the U.K. with developing economies which will drive economic growth in the 21st century.

    Improving rail travel within the U.K., especially connecting rural areas to growing towns and cities will reduce car traffic, reduce carbon emissions and NOx pollution in urban areas. Creating new lines and electrifying existing routes should be the priority rather than grand projects like HS2 which at £50bn will never represent value for money.

    Does the U.K. need to have a large and sophisticated hub airport? Yes

    Does the U.K. need improved rail links? Yes.

    If Heathrow was a new build project it would never be built in its current position. However, the cost of creating a new hub airport on a better location would be too costly. We need to mitigate the effects of expansion rather than being bogged down for decades in debate about the ethics of the decision.


  11. Interesting article. I think we should be improving the whole of the rail service rather than building a third runway at Heathrow. This would be better for the environment. To make this attractive to passengers and encourage them to choose rail then the prices would have to come down and the service would have to improve.


  12. It’s an interesting debate. Often economic growth and the promise of creating thousands of jobs wins over our need to protect the environment as we are ultimately selfish and don’t think really long term. But I think we all need to take responsibility and make ethical choices, vote with our feet I suppose and don’t fuel the increased demand on air travel.
    I agree with some of the other comments that rail prices need to reduce and services improve for that to be a viable alternative.
    The ethics of the HS2 project could also be another debate!


  13. Go for green. If the increased number of flights aren’t there alternatives will
    Have to be considered. We need to protect the environement .It is everyones


  14. Should the UK be investing in a High speed rail system whose technology seems already close to going out of date or would it be better to wait for the further development of the Maglev to have a truly modern train network?


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