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?
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