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We have to price carbon, says Heathrow's Sustainability Director

Sensemaking / We have to price carbon, says Heathrow's Sustainability Director

The aviation industry is fraught with challenges for sustainability. Matt Gorman talks Katie Shaw through the complexities - and how he plans to tackle them.

By Katie Shaw / 30 Oct 2013

I passionately believe in international travel as a force for good in the world

I had my environmental ‘coming of age’ back in the ‘80s, in the context of the Chernobyl disaster, concerns over climate change and the ozone layer, and the [UK] Green Party doing well in European elections. I went onto study languages, but I knew I’d end up working in this sector. Doing the Forum Masters, with its fast-track network into the sector, helped me realise that ambition.

I’ve always been passionate about international travel, and genuinely believe it can be a force for good in the world. So now I’m working to bring my two passions together, and trying to figure out how we can tackle the huge environmental challenges facing the aviation sector. My work at Heathrow has provided me with the leadership opportunity to do that – both within the company, and also in the wider political context in the UK and global aviation industry.

We must collaborate with local communities

There are relatively few businesses in the UK that are so big (76,000 people clock onto work every day at Heathrow) and yet so deeply rooted in their local community – half of those people live in the five boroughs around the airport. We’ve focused hard in recent years on being more responsive to, and engaging better with, local communities. We’ve listened to their concerns regarding noise pollution and climate change impacts and, through initiatives like alternating early-morning flight patterns and even looking at changing the angle at which planes descend into an airport, are becoming more nimble at responding to their problems.

Understanding technology is crucial

Tracking trends in how planes are built and what they might be fuelled by in years to come is crucial to reducing the sectors’ impact. Biofuel development is rightly scrutinised – there are enormous complexities to consider. But the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group is doing good work to assess the impacts of various biofuel options, and companies like British Airways and Virgin are doing research into fuel production.

Let the market decide

The Sustainable Aviation ‘Carbon Road- Map’ effectively says that the industry can continue to grow until 2050 without increasing emissions. But we know that’s not enough. We need to decarbonise the economy by 2050. So what the UK aviation industry is looking at is how we can trade emissions at a global level. If you put aviation into a robust global emissions trading scheme, then what you’re doing is promising that whilst aviation may be growing, you’re paying for cuts to happen in other sectors. Reducing emissions in aviation is more expensive than in other sectors, so it is cheaper to pay for cuts elsewhere. Putting the price on the enemy – carbon – is the economically efficient way of tackling the problem. If people are still prepared to pay for the resulting rise in the cost of travel then, effectively, you’ve let the market decide.

Matt Gorman

Currently: Sustainability Director, Heathrow, and Chair of 'Sustainable Aviation', the UK industry's sustainability strategy

Class of: '98 - '99

Individual leaders I most admire: Martin Luther-King and Mahatma Gandhi, for their commitment to non-violent, direct action on social issues

Organisations I most admire: Marks and Spencer, for their internal and external communications around sustainability

Photo credit: Heathrow Photo Library

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