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Heathrow-on-Sea plans could gain lift off!

Published on by Phlorum

We hear the government is considering Heathrow relocation plans, in terms of using two reclaimed islands (totalling five runways) in the Thames estuary.

This topic is on George Osborne’s table after feedback that the UK is suffering economically, due to expansion hold-ups regarding airports; Stansted, Heathrow and Gatwick.

Lead engineer is Douglas Oakervee, who oversaw the successful construction of the Hong Kong International Airport Chek Lap Kok (HKIA). As the world’s busiest cargo and third busiest passenger volume airport in 2009, it prides itself on many sustainable measures. In 2009/10, HKIA reduced over 5,800 tonnes of carbon emissions by instigating programmes of waste reduction and recycling, temperature adjustment, lighting system optimisation and clean fuel use.

Heathrow suffers from operational as well as environmental expansion inhibitors. Operationally it’s limited by several factors, including airspace, the number and length of runways, the area available for use as taxiways and the number and size of terminals and landside facilities.

After examining the proposals, we got to thinking about the environmental impacts of switching to the Thames estuary plans. Firstly, and perhaps most significantly, the extra greenhouse gas emissions arising from the increased air traffic are a concern. If the additional runways are used to even half the capacity as those currently at Heathrow, annual greenhouse gas emissions will increase by 18 million tonnes. To put this in perspective, this is similar to the total carbon footprint of Jamaica, Lithuania or Estonia!

It is unclear what impacts will be seen in the marine environment. The islands are expected to become habitats for birds and mammals, but dredging the silt for development will disturb sea-life. Even when built these new habitats will constantly change – the airport on reclaimed land in Osaka, Japan, has sunk 3m since construction!

If the estuary airport is made inaccessible by car, emissions savings will be realised through the increased use of public transport.

Lastly, and a matter close to our heart here at Phlorum, are the emissions embodied within the construction of the scheme. We are not talking about a new runway here, but a new airport, on two islands, with new infrastructure. An investigation into embodied emissions would take months, but we predict the result would be in the millions of tonnes CO2 rather than thousands. Just think of all that concrete!

However, the development is expected to be self-sufficient in terms of operational energy (presumably excluding aircraft fuel!). According to plans, underwater turbines, built into ducts running through the body of the islands would generate most of the airport’s electricity needs by harnessing the tide in lagoons.  Further to this, reed beds and bio-remediation systems will treat grey-water.

Heathrow employs over 100,000 people, contributes £11bn to the economy, and is currently operating at 99% capacity. Environmentalists have long been campaigning against a third runway. How will they feel about an extra five in the middle of the Thames Estuary, remains to be seen.

Development is not sustainable without finding harmony between economic, social and environmental factors, and in this case, arguing that the latter has been properly considered is difficult to surmount.

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