Norman Foster’s Take on Carbon Footprint

Rowan Moore, architecture critic of the Observer, interviewed Norman Foster at the end of last year. Foster claims to be big on sustainability, reporting stats like the one that London’s carbon footprint is one seventh that of the city of Atlanta, showing a relationship between density and emissions (ie, a city where you can walk and cycle, is a lot less carbon heavy).

But he’s also big on infrastructure ‘investing… to anticipate the issues of future generations’. By that he means ideas like the Thames estuary airport instead of Heathrow where he says ‘you can never accommodate long-term needs’.

In response to the question of whether it’s desirable to facilitate more flying Foster says that the methane from cows means that meat eaters contribute much more to global warming than those who fly, and anyway, ‘the reality is that all society is embedded in mobility.’

Foster, like most big name architects, has not got where he is by listening to other people’s opinions. However, this does look like thinking which dates back to the 1960s when travel was an aspiration. Since then cheap flights have meant that a whole generation has travelled almost unthinkingly, but are now beginning to question whether it is worth the effort, especially in the face of the dreary queues created by fear of terrorism.

Foster envisages in his estuary hub an airport driven by tidal power with solar powered flight and planes made of lightweight composites. This could happen, but why should it where petroleum-based aviation fuel remains so remarkably cheap, not least because any tax is subject to a game of international chicken with no no administration yet showing the courage to charge tax on it. It’s a very effective subsidy for the airline industry, estimated as £10bn a year back in 2008