The claim:

“We could cover the whole of Surrey with runways and not increase emissions by a single kilogram”.

– Tim Yeo MP, chairman of the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee, 28 August 2012

The background

It wasn’t a plane, but Tim Yeo who performed a U-turn on the third runway at Heathrow yesterday. Now he reckons we need one.

He’s so in love with the idea he’s prepared to swap the green fields of Surrey for solid tarmac, metaphorically speaking.

At the heart of his volte-face is his belief that the UK is falling behind economic competitors because of transport infrastructure “that looks increasingly Third World compared to much of Asia”.

“Where better to start than with the third runway at Heathrow?” he asks in the Daily Telegraph, before going on to say that environmental objections are “disappearing too”.

“Indeed, we could cover the whole of Surrey with runways and not increase emissions by a single kilogram: if Heathrow expands, so remaining the European destination of choice, airlines will fly their newest and quietest aircraft to it. If not, then older and noisier planes will be the norm,” he said.

It’s an issue which strikes at the heart of the coalition. When David Cameron was still courting would-be voters in south London before he came to power, he said there would be no third runway, switching Labour’s green light to red once he came to power. It suited the Lib Dems.

Now Mr Yeo’s asked Mr Cameron whether he’s a “man or a mouse”, and growing numbers within senior Tory ranks appear to feel the same way.

But is he right to stake the landscape of one of the home counties on his newfound belief that the environment won’t suffer?

The analysis

The only way in which the whole of Surrey could be covered in runways while maintaing carbon emission levels would be through the European emissions trading system (ETS).

Under that, industries are given allowances to cover permissible levels of CO2 emissions. There are a fixed number of allowances per year; the EU plans to whittle down the amount of allowances available each consecutive year.

Aviation accounts for about two per cent of the world’s global carbon emissions. As air travel becomes cheaper, it could rise to about 20 per cent of global emissions by 2050 if the industry grows as expected at about 5 per cent a year for the next 15 years. So the EU brought airlines into the ETS.

If an airline thinks it will exceed its allowance, it can either reduce its carbon footprint by investing in more efficient technologies, or it can buy up extra allowances which someone else hasn’t used. Either way, it becomes more expensive to over-emit carbon, so the thinking is that airlines are given an incentive to reduce their carbon emission levels.

But it does mean that technically, the amount of carbon emitted should be the same no matter how many flights there are – it’s the distribution that will be different. If one sector, such as aviation, uses up the allowances, it means less left in the pot for others.

Technically, then, if one wished, it may be possible to divert most of Europe’s planes into Surrey runways and not exceed emissions levels. In fact, why stop at Surrey? How about the MP’s own backyard in Suffolk, which covers his constituency? It’s more than double the size: we could have more than double the amount of runways there than we do in Surrey. But that gain would be at another industry’s loss.

Environmentalists also say that the problem is that emissions are too high in the first place, and we don’t want to maintain them – we want to reduce them. They think the EU’s too generous in its carbon allowance. So by that token, yes, we may not increase emissions “by a single kilogram”, but that’s not something to celebrate, they’d say.

And so far, there appears to have been no means of enforcing the scheme, though most have complied. Airlines who fail to comply – such as Indian and Chinese airlines which declined to submit their emissions data – could be subject to small fines, or even banned from European airports.

But no airline has ever been issued with a penalty; the EU extended the deadline for offending airlines.

By the way, FactCheck’s looked into the plans which the Labour government proposed to introduce for the third runway at Heathrow. They commissioned a report by the Committee on Climate Change, which suggested that in order for the UK to maintain 2005 emissions levels in 2050, the number of arrivals and departures from British airports could increase by a maximum of 60 per cent. That’s taking into account the increasing use of fuel efficient fleets.

At that time, the government suggested that a third runway would boost arrivals and departures at Heathrow by around 46 per cent by 2020.

Which means that with a third runway, airports across the rest of the UK would have a slim quota of a 14 per cent rise in arrivals and departures, should they want to expand, in order to maintain 2005 CO2 emission levels.

The verdict

On paper at least, it would be possible to cover the whole of Surrey with runways and not increase emissions “by a single kilogram”.

That doesn’t mean it’s a good thing. Those who believe in climate change say that’s not enough – the point is to cut overall emissions.

It also takes the ETS theory so far it’s almost meaningless in practice.

Mr Yeo also stores a large amount of hope in the ETS when it’s still very early to say how effective it will be. Green groups are opposed to it because they say it doesn’t go far enough, and without any penalties being issued yet, it remains to be seen how well enforced it will be.

Given the ETS has already survived a legal challenge from the US, and Willie Walsh, chief executive of British Airways and Iberia, joined the growing chorus of opposition from airlines, it’s future success will depend on who wins the perpetual battle between industry and EU law.

We’ve not touched on other problems with airport expansion here – noise pollution, and use of land, for example – that opponents, particularly those living under busy flight paths, cite.

So although what Mr Yeo’s said is fact, it’s one that may well crash land.

By Fariha Karim