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Heathrow 2.0

I’m a pretty committed and documented ‘non-flyer’. I almost entirely gave up flying on holiday in 2005 (with one notable exception at the start of 2016 for a once in a lifetime trip to Antarctica – which I wrote a blog series about in the Huffington Post here), went around the world without flying a decade ago (about which I wrote my book ‘Only Planet – a flight-free adventure around the world’) and have been involved in all sorts of initiatives to promote low carbon overland travel (most notably European rail ticketing site Loco2). I have still had to fly very occasionally when work demands it, when there’s no other option, and when the ‘carbon case’ (the potential emissions savings generated by the project exceed the carbon cost of flying) justifies it. But as a general rule I tend to try and stay as grounded as possible.

This has always been for the simple reason of tackling climate change. Don’t get me wrong, flying is amazing. Having access to all the cultural interconnections and heritage of the world, both natural and man-made, is a uniquely fabulous aspect of modern life. But it is also literally the most carbon intensive behaviour we can undertake as individuals. Bar none. And it’s largely discretionary with 75% of UK flights taken by only 15% of the population as the genii behind the ‘Frequent Flyer Levy’ have rightly pointed out. And there are many alternatives, certainly for the around half of all flights from the UK which are to the European Union (for now!). And for business travel in the age of highly-sophisticated tele-conferencing and other options. As a climate activist for twenty years, I always find flagrantly frequent flying a little feckless. An occasional fantastic foray perhaps…but not a multiple times a year, myriad city mini-breaks type of regular habit.

So it was an interesting proposition when we began working with Heathrow airport around their new sustainability strategy ‘Heathrow 2.0’ which launches today. Our approach was predicated on the notion of ‘ending the era of aviation exceptionalism’ in the context of climate change. The aviation sector as a whole has not always been entirely eager in the past to embrace the reality of carbon cuts, not least because radical technological innovation is still many years away. The historical argument has been that whilst every other sector must radically de-carbonise to meet climate targets, aviation should be given additional leeway to grow its emissions – essentially expecting everyone else to do the heavy-lifting whilst broadly continuing business as usual. Oh, and no tax on the fuel either.

‘In aviation this is game-changing leadership. Building on their concrete plans for a genuinely Zero Carbon Airport’.

Which is why ‘Heathrow 2.0’ contains a huge, bold and courageous aspiration; carbon neutral growth for the new third runway. In aviation this is game-changing leadership. Building on their concrete plans for a genuinely Zero Carbon Airport, the new infrastructure and flights themselves (at least partly through the recent ICAO ‘CORSAIR’ agreement) will aim to be net zero carbon, this is a dramatic shift and a powerful challenge. It will not be easy to do. Nothing worth while doing ever really is. It will cost money. It will require innovation and creativity, from ecosystem scale landscape restoration as carbon sinks, through to accelerating the development and uptake of new carbon saving technologies. But one thing is for certain – these aspirations never have a hope of becoming commitments unless they are made, and made publicly. This is what Heathrow have now done. And they deserve respect for stepping up.

The Futerra team here have worked tirelessly alongside their equally hard-grafting colleagues at Heathrow itself for months now to not only ensure the very highest ‘stretch’ of ambition – our client called it ‘holding our feet to the fire, and rightly so’ – but also to do the due diligence and dog-work behind the scenes to make sure there is evidence and realism and robustness to the goals. From provocative personal challenges to the CEO, through to refining a creative approach that defines a sustainable future for flight, every effort has been made to get this right.

We’re delighted to stand alongside this strategy. It will no doubt surprise a few people, but it is the right thing to do. It hopefully creates some of the necessary ‘pull’ to bring regulators, airlines and other partners who will be essential in delivering it along with Heathrow. It balances climate investment risks, with a public licence to operate – this is about purpose and profit. And it will undoubtedly have its sceptics and cynics too.

True not every single ‘i’ has been dotted, nor every ‘t’ crossed. Yet. And there are still key challenges around local noise and air quality to be overcome. But that’s kind of the point of a really testing, pioneering and transformative strategy – one that aims so high that not every step of the journey to get there can possibly be clear when you start. And it heralds the end of ‘aviation exceptionalism’ – a vital milestone. Ultimately this strategy has a huge ‘brainprint’ impact that sends a cultural message to all businesses that even a high carbon industry like aviation can and must have zero carbon aspirations. We helped Heathrow ‘imagine better’ and now we can all ensure they ‘make it happen’. It’s game on.

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