Climate change vs infrastructure projects- Can they co-exist?

The Guardian on Tuesday 30th March had an interesting article entitled “UK criticised for ignoring Paris climate goals in infrastructure decisions”. In summary, various luminaries, scientists, legal and environmental experts, have written a letter and to come out to say that:

      • The case concerning the expansion of Heathrow Airport, and the decision by the Supreme Court last year, has set a dangerous precedent, in effect allowing national infrastructure projects to go ahead at the expense of the agreed targets set in the Paris Agreement. In particular to hold global heating to well below 2C above pre-industrial levels.
      • The UK Government and the Supreme Court has obligations under the Human Rights Act 1998 (to safeguard the right to life).
      • Courts should be forcing Governments of signatory states to adhere to the commitments of the Paris Agreement.
      • The Cop26 is in the UK this year, and the UK should be championing the Paris Agreement.
      • The plans for new coal mine, new licences being issued for oil and gas exploration in the North Sea, scrappage of the Governments main green recovery measure, and the green homes grants for insulation and low carbon heating are concerning developments.

The Government has rightly called in the planning application on the Whitehaven Coal mine, which was to operate past 2035, and which decision by the planners was entirely inconsistent with the Governments climate change commitments.

However, it’s unfair to say that the Government is not behind the Paris Agreement. As they say life is complicated. There are few jurisdictions that have no regard for climate change issues, and this is borne the fact that there are some 191 signatories to the Paris Agreement as at February of this year. Whether the Government would, as a statement of intent and  commitment to the Paris Agreement, go so far as to consider articulating in greater clarity its green agenda on infrastructure by enacting restrictive legislation to avoid the issues surrounding the Heathrow third runway only time will tell.

The US and UK will need to keep economies growing, and to encourage a quick bounce back from the Covid induced recession. This will entail a roll out of national infrastructure spending.

Both President Biden and PM Boris Johnson have made clear their intentions to actively embark on ambitious green energy programmes.

Some changes will be gradual. So it’s unrealistic to think that oil and gas and combustible fuels can be replaced entirely.

Car manufactures have stated their intention to replace petrol combustion motor vehicles with electric. Local authorities have introduced, or propose to, restrictions on certain vehicles in town centres.

These changes to be carbon neutral will in itself create a need for more green infrastructure investment such as:-

      • More accessible electric charging points at purpose built charging stations.
      • Domestic houses requiring charging points.
      • Car battery production capability.
      • Solar panels.
      • Ground Source/ air heating technologies.
      • Will electricity providers have to upgrade substations to meet the needs.
      • Embracing more modular, factory built, construction methods.
      • Sustainable building rather than designing buildings with a short life cycle.
      • Waste to energy/ plastic to hydrogen plants/ bio technologies.

It’s wrong to say that national infrastructure projects automatically equate to a contradiction with the aims of the Paris Agreement. Infrastructure projects are necessary, and some specifically to compliment the aims of the Paris Agreement. The irony of course is that the Heathrow Airport expansion case that set off the debate about national infrastructure projects and climate change, and the Covid pandemic has all but put the airline industry on its knees.

Prior to Covid the Heathrow expansion scheme supporters said in favour that another terminal would not necessarily increase the number of flights. If planes weren’t going into Heathrow they’d be going into Paris or Frankfurt instead, but they would still be flying. Whether or not that is still the case post-covid remains to be seen. But far from creating a negative climate impact, diverting flights to a jurisdiction (the UK) that has one of the world’s strongest climate change lobbies, and one of the most active governments in terms of creating and implementing measures to combat climate change, may actually be a benefit overall. In other words, the global impact of those flights coming into Heathrow will or ought to be less than the equivalent impact if they were allowed to go to other airports.

There is a balancing act to be had when national infrastructure schemes are being considered. Climate change considerations may not always prevail in competition with national economic needs. That said, they cannot be ignored. Infrasture projects and climate change considerations can co-exist, albeit there is a delicate balancing act that as yet may not have been achieved.