Photo credit: Maarten Visser (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Noise pollution: give citizens the means to reclaim their peace

Airport noise policy across Europe does not appear to be sufficient to protect EU citizens

Airport runway operations are noisy and a cause of severe disturbance. Such noise pollution hampers the quality of life for millions of European citizens. It can also have long lasting health impacts. Proponents argue that these large-scale projects will support the expansion of trade and the movement of citizens. They claim the move will, in turn, boost the European economy.

Opponents, in contrast, claim that such projects affect the populations of these cities in negative ways. Among other issues, they denounce the negative health effects from long term noise exposure–including those related to severe sleep disturbance. In this delicate balancing act, can the European legislator get it right? EuroScientist investigates whether current regulations are effective at protecting the health of citizens while meeting the growing demands for transport and trade.

Environmental noise Directive

Since 2002, a legislation governs environmental noise issues in Europe. The Environmental Noise Directive was initiated to estimate levels of exposure to transport noise across EU nations. “The Directive establishes clear methods and indicators to assess noise levels,” explains Enrico Brivio, a European Commission’s spokesperson for environment, based in Brussels, and it “requires the use of dose-effect relations to estimate harmful effects on health.”

The Directive also outlines the necessary remedial measures that Member States can implement when noise levels are too high. These take the form of action plans. But since its inception, it appears to have had little impact. “The approach to action planning throughout the EU has been piecemeal at best,” says Enda Murphy, who is associate professor at the School of Architecture, Planning and Environmental Policy, University College Dublin, Ireland.

No doubt, the noise measurement and reduction incentives developed by the EU are well-intended. However, the discrepancy between the rules and the reality stems from the lack of effective implementation at national level, according to Murphy, who is also author of a book on the topic. He adds: “there has been little oversight from the EU with regards to compliance in relation to the Directive thus far.”

Citizen involvement

When Member States are not proactive, people affected by noise have, in principle, the option to take matters into their own hands. Indeed, the Directive has some provisions for public consultation. “Action plans should contain estimates in terms of the [potential] reduction of the number of people affected,” says the Commission’s spokesperson Enrico Brivio, “and Member States must also ensure that the public is consulted about proposals for such plans.”

In reality, the Directive does not appear to have stimulated the engagement of citizens affected by such long-term noise exposure as much as it was designed to do. “A specific aim of the Directive was to promote dissemination of the outcomes of the strategic noise mapping process to the public,” says Murphy, “and raise awareness of noise as an environmental and public health issue.”

Indeed, 14 years after implementation, citizen involvement by people living under proposed flight paths, or next to other noisy projects, has not quite worked as planned. “This has been one of the real weaknesses of the process,” Murphy points out, “and the relevant authorities in each nation have made only minimalist attempts to engage citizens.”

Noise reduction compromise

In reality, citizens often ignore the bureaucratic path to providing feedback offered by the legislation. Instead, they express their awareness of risks associated with environmental noise pollution in more vocal and demonstrative ways. For example, London Heathrow has previously faced much-publicised protests to its proposed third main runway. Since then, Heathrow airport authorities appear to have taken these views into account. Today, they support the launch of an independent noise authority and a ban on night flights.

Another example is the high-profile protests against the proposed construction of a second airport in the Nantes region, located in Notre-Dame-Des-Landes, France. The original plan was to supplement the capacity of the existing Nantes Atlantic airport, located in the outskirts of the city. Fierce opposition to the new airport has led French authorities to propose a compromise. During a public consultation, on 26th June 2016, citizens in the entire region had to decide whether to move the existing Nantes Atlantic airport to the site of the proposed second airport in Notre-Dames-des-Landes. They voted in favour of the transfer.

Economic and technical arguments

In other cases, technological advances and economic arguments appear to trump the needs of local residents. For instance, Dublin airport is also set to start building a new runway in 2017, amid some local opposition, while Government officials have suggested creating a new terminal.

The decision has been made on the grounds that passenger numbers flying to the Irish capital are increasing. Proponents advocate that busy airports are a characteristic of a strong economy. “The delivery of a new runway could support a further 31,000 new jobs over the next two decades, contributing €2.2 billion to Ireland’s GDP,” says Siobhan O’Donnell, head of external communications at the Dublin Airport Authority (DAA).

Advocating the prevalence of economic benefits over the need to protect people’s health does not sit well with some experts. “How can an economy that deliberately puts people’s health at risk be an economy worth preserving?” asks Eike Albrecht, professor of law at the Brandenburg Technical University Cottbus-Senftenberg, Germany.

The DAA also argues that the environmental health concerns are not as strong as before because aircraft have a reduced noise footprint. “Technological changes mean that aircraft have become significantly quieter,” says the DAA’s O’Donnell. DAA therefore wants to lift a 2007 restriction limiting night flights to 65.

She adds that the DAA “are absolutely committed to engaging with our local communities as the project progresses, and are happy to meet community groups or on a one-to-one basis.”

For some, this does not rule out the need for further regulation. Albrecht concludes: “Even though certain legal provisions favouring these new quieter aircraft are already in place, regulation can still do a little more in order to provide incentives for airlines to modernise their fleets, and for manufacturers to develop even less noisy aircraft.”

Featured image credit: CC BY-SA 2.0 by Maarten Visser

Conor Purcell
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