We’ve now reached peak runway!

By Mike Pepler, UK Awards Manager
The UK government has announced its support for a third runway at Heathrow Airport. Our UK Awards Manager explains why he won’t be using it, or indeed any runway any time soon.

The first alarm bell sounded at the end of 2001, a year in which I took no less than 22 long-haul flights. I shudder to think now what my carbon footprint amounted to: Singapore, Japan, China, India. And that was just for work in my job with a company selling software for silicon chip design; I was also flying for personal trips too.

The real wake up call came a few years later when I read a book by Richard Heinberg called The Party’s Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Society. It was enough to convince me that the future of the world’s energy supply was more important than silicon chips and software.

Ironically the last flight I ever took was in 2005 to, of all things, a conference in Edinburgh on peak oil….. It worked out cheaper than taking the train and forking out for overnight accommodation.

I’m always mindful of something a friend said to me once, that when it comes to the environment we’re all hypocrites, it just depends what level of hypocrisy you’re comfortable with.

And in this global interconnected world of ours where families are scattered in all directions, I can understand why the idea of cutting back on flying is difficult. But I decided not to renew my passport when it expired and, hand on heart, can’t say that I feel that I’m missing out.

In the last ten years I’ve run a car on vegetable oil and driven round Scotland in it. My wife and I bought electric bikes and not only did we cut down on car journeys but we also built up our fitness enough to be able to cope with hills on ordinary bikes.

Don’t get me wrong though, we still have a car and a 4x4. We’re both community first responders for the local ambulance service hence the need for two cars. The 4x4 is because we own a few acres of woodland from which we source logs to heat our house, and it’s used to haul a trailer of wood along muddy tracks. As I said, you have to choose your own level of hypocrisy.

So when it comes to a third runway at Heathrow, you can probably guess that I’m not really in favour. Although the price of oil has fluctuated wildly over the past decade, it’s clear that, as a finite source of energy, it will continue to go up in the long run and flying will become more expensive. It seems daft to invest in such a large project when in 20 years’ time we’ll potentially be flying less.    

It would be so nice to see some long term thinking at play here. Within a few years maybe there will be better broadband in rural areas across the UK, we might all be working from home more, teleconferencing more, have more electric cars on the road. It’s estimated that a third runway at Heathrow will cost £18.6 billion. If only we could divert just a tiny fraction of that into additional electric charging points for example.

We need to find a way to incentivise a reduction in carbon emissions from fuel. At present jet fuel isn’t subject to any duty like road fuel is in this country, why on earth not? The same is true for fuel for commercial shipping. Actually there have been some interesting developments in shipping in recent years where huge kites are being used by commercial freighters to reduce the amount of fuel used.

At an individual level behaviour change, however subtle, is a good place to start. These days I ask myself whether I need to make the journey in the first instance and, if I do, could I walk, cycle or catch a train? I’m fortunate in that I get to work from home a lot but I also genuinely find that visiting family members living 200 miles away is much more enjoyable by train than by car. And cheaper if I book ahead.

I know the idea of cutting back on flying isn’t easy, especially for holidays. Once upon a time it was a real adventure, now it’s often just a quick weekend away.

To me the negative impacts of a new runway are significant, but I know that for others the flip side is that it may lead to 50,000 new jobs. Will I renew my passport in the future? Yes, if the need arises, but only if I’m travelling by train through the tunnel to Europe!


In 2017 there will be a new Ashden UK Award recognising innovative ways to reduce pollution in urban areas by making transport more sustainable. Applications are now open, deadline 8 November 2016.