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After backing HS2 rail, Johnson mulls Heathrow runway

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London (AFP)

Having backed Britain's proposed high-speed railway HS2, Boris Johnson is under pressure to keep his pledge to scrap plans for a third runway at London Heathrow airport as climate fears intensify.

Prime Minister Johnson, who wants big infrastructure projects to help drive Britain's post-Brexit economy, said earlier this month that the country would shortly begin full construction work on HS2, dismissing soaring costs.

The project, while quickening train journeys between London in southeast England and major cities in the north, will also free up capacity on existing lines and aims to help rebalance the UK economy.

While construction of the HS2 line is set to produce vast amounts of carbon emissions and destroy ancient woodlands and wildlife, according to experts, its electric trains are set to be far more environmentally friendly than planes making similar trips.

- 'Lying in front of bulldozers' -

Johnson's predecessor Theresa May in 2018 approved a new runway at Heathrow, Europe's busiest airport, three years after Johnson had promised to "lie down in front of... bulldozers and stop the construction", citing environmental as well as aesthetic concerns.

Her government argued that the project would provide a major boost to Britain's economy, creating for example up to 114,000 local jobs by 2030.

With Johnson now prime minister, an MP from the small Liberal Democrat party recently asked the Conservative leader if he would carry through with his 2015 bulldozer promise.

Johnson appeared to sit on the fence with his answer regarding the runway, which unlike HS2, will be funded almost entirely privately.

Replying to the question by Liberal MP Munira Wilson, Johnson told parliament that he had "seen no bulldozers at present nor any immediate prospect of them arriving".

To allay environmental concerns, Heathrow last year said it planned to reroute rivers and roads as part of the construction work.

And on Thursday, it added that it hopes all the airport's buildings and infrastructure will be zero carbon by around 2035.

Building of the runway is expected to start in 2022 and take four years. New terminals will not be ready however until around 2050, when the UK government hopes the country will have a net-zero carbon emissions economy.

Regarding the runway's construction, Johnson "will continue to prevaricate and put obstacles to progress in the way... before zero emissions are a reality", independent aviation analyst Howard Wheeldon told AFP.

- Legal challenge -

A decision to scrap the project could be made easier for Johnson, however, thanks to legal action by clear opponents of the project.

One case has been brought by a team including Greenpeace, local London councils and the capital's mayor Sadiq Khan.

They are appealing against a High Court loss last May. The new verdict is expected shortly.

"Heathrow's third runway has many obstacles to overcome, any one of which is capable of blocking the development," said John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace UK.

"The plan requires too much money for Heathrow Ltd shareholders, who could sell up in protest. It will create too much noise, air pollution and traffic for the local residents, and far too much carbon for a planet in a climate emergency.

"It's difficult to predict which of these will end up derailing the runway but it seems very unlikely that it will clear all of those hurdles," Sauven told AFP.

- £30 billion cost -

The expansion is expected to cost about £30 billion ($39 billion, 36 billion euros), including £14 billion on the first phase.

By contrast, HS2 is projected to have a total bill greater than £100 billion -- almost all of it at the taxpayers' expense -- and a first-phase opening by the end of the decade.

Heathrow, west of London, aims to increase its total capacity to 130 million passengers per day, compared with about 78 million currently.

"Heathrow's new runway will make the UK a winner, connecting all of Britain to global growth and that’s why we need to get on with delivering it," the airport's chief executive John Holland-Kaye recently said.

Heathrow is owned by an investment consortium comprising also sovereign wealth funds from nations including China, Singapore and Qatar.

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