The British government’s recent decision to cancel construction of a third runway at London’s Heathrow airport marks a major milestone in our adaptation to post-carbon mobility. This is the first time that a government has canceled plans for major aviation infrastructure expansion due to global, rather than local, concerns about environmental degradation. In past decades, airport expansions in North America, Europe and Japan have scaled back when surrounding communities mobilized against the prospective increase in aircraft noise and motor vehicle traffic. But no political jurisdiction has been willing to read the writing on the wall with respect to aviation’s future, until now.
Aviation is the most carbon-intensive mobility mode, and it’s practically continual growth since the introduction of jet aircraft in the 1950s is not sustainable on either an energy or climate protection basis. Yet many jurisdictions continue to plan for 3 – 5 % annual growth in air travel, in perpetuity, pouring billions into runway and airport terminal infrastructure that will be obsolete on the day they are opened.
The UK’s new government has prioritized expanding its high-speed rail network to substitute for short and medium-distance flights. Given the current economic crisis, the funds to both both high-speed rail and Heathrow’s third runway were not available. Rather than postpone the rail expansion that would expand Great Britain’s future mobility options, the government opted to pull the plug on a new runway that would become a stranded asset within the coming decade.
Responding to the predictable howls of outrage from air industry lobbyists, Great Britain’s Transport Minister of State for Transport, Teresa Villiers, simply stated ‘We decided to make Heathrow better rather than bigger’. Such prescience merits an award for post-carbon insight and reveals just how newly elected governments can accomplish key changes to prepare their society for a sustainable post-carbon future. People will look back on July 1, 2010 as a very important day of decision in sustainable transportation.
photo credit: Wessex Archaeology on flickr