Climate change and Construction-revisited

By Vijay Bange

In June 2020 I wrote an article entitled “Climate change- a wind of change for construction?”. In summary this raised the point whether increasing focus on climate change in relation to major infrastructure projects might run counter to economic efforts to counteract the effects of the global pandemic. Whilst I am writing this from a UK perspective, I dare say the issues are equally relevant to other jurisdictions.

The issue of pollution in major cities in the UK has again been highlighted by the tragic death of a child[1] whose family lived near the south circular in Lewisham. In a landmark case, the second coroner’s inquest found that the levels of pollution were above world safe levels, and that air pollution was a material cause of her death. This tragic case will bring to the fore the national debate on pollution and climate change.

On the same day, we had the decision from the Supreme Court in relation to the proposed expansion of Heathrow Airport, concerning the proposed new third runway. As a recap previously the Court of Appeal found in favour of climate campaigners that the then Secretary for Transport failed to take into account the latest government commitments on climate change before granting permission. In short that the government had failed to take into account its own commitments on climate change under the Paris Agreement.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday 16th December ruled that the governments airport strategy was based on previous less stringent climate targets at the time it was agreed. This win for the owners of Heathrow Airport paves the way for them to seek planning permission  for the expansion. However, the matter will need to pass the public enquiry.

Its still complicated. To meet the climate change commitments there will need to be a “sacrificial lamb”. The cost of expansion at Heathrow may require downsizing a regional airport(s) to balance the carbon emissions targets. This conflicts with the government’s commitment to invest across the country and avoid the southern bias allegations. Laterally the management of the regional Covid Tiering/restriction banding has been influenced by regional councils and mayors, and the lobby has been strong, and effective. Manchester is an example. What this means is that those councils with regional airports will object to the expansion if it’s at the expense of their airport and will impact on regional jobs. How will this play out will other projects such as road schemes. More regional autonomy may have an influence on these big investment projects going forward if investment in an area will have a scaling back of investment in another.

Infrastructure projects will remain to be seen as the way to build our economy out of recession. The commitments by the government to climate change targets and reduction of carbon emissions and pollution will present challenges, and give rise to conundrums and balancing acts. Brexit deal or no deal amongst other direct consequences will also have a bearing on the ongoing climate change- construction agenda.

[1] Ella Kissi-Debrah