The Guardian reports that Kevin Anderson from the Tyndall Centre has warned the government that airport expansion cannot go ahead if we are to achieve a 60% (or 80% even) cut in emissions by 2050. This warning, which I'm pretty sure Kevin has been making for a couple of years now, comes just as Geoff Hoon is expected to approve further expansion of Heathrow Airport. Of course, it's not the expansion of the airport that will result in a failure of emissions reductions, it's the planes that will do that.
Having assessed the likely impact of improvement technologies on aviation emissions, Anderson, speaking at the Royal Society concluded that "The urgency with which the industry must make the transition to a low-carbon pathway leaves no option, but to instigate a radical and immediate programme of demand management."(Guardian article). This isn't rocket science, although it's not far off.
From a sustainability point of view, there's two seperate issues at stake: 1)the expansion of the airport 2)the increased emissions from those new flights able to start and finish at Heathrow once expanded further. I'm not just being pedantic: the impacts are both local and global. If you live anywhere near Heathrow you may well be annoyed the construction, the noise, the traffic the potential for homes to be destroyed or relocated (there's plenty of campaign websites at this level). You may also be concerned about increased aviation emissions.
If you don't live locally, it's the emissions increases that will probably concern you most (if you are concerned at all), espescially if you've read a Tyndall Centre report recently. The impact of an airport expansion is shared by all of us and of course by the rest of the world - and not just because more Brits will turn up on foreign beaches in a few years time.
As such, Heathrow can be seen as proxy for the bigger developmental dilemma: Carry on regardless in the hope that technology will leap to the rescue or start doing things differently. This dilemma plays out at individual level as much as at National or international level and the two are connected.
As consumers become aware of the need to change behaviours they seek affirmation that they are not acting alone (see I will if you wIll by the SDC). There can seem little point bending over backwards to live a sustainable life, while all those around you do the opposite - it's certainly a test of character but encouragingly a goal that increasing numbers have the strength of will to pursue. Nevertheless, the decision to fly or not to fly, at an individual level will be influenced heavily by the decisions of fellow citizens and of course by the lead shown by government. In the end, it's not airports, or even aeroplanes that are the problem - it's the fact we continue to endorse them.