Beijing is moving to overtake London as the world’s busiest aviation hub with the construction of a third airport that could have as many as nine runways.
The new mega-project – part of a huge expansion of China’s airline industry – has alarmed environmental groups, who warn aircraft will increasingly contribute to the country’s already dire pollution problems and high greenhouse gas emissions.
The government has yet to announce details of the project, but the Guardian has spoken to sources familiar with the initial designs and seen signs of construction in the rural district of Daxing, about 31 miles (50km) south-west of the city centre.
On the roadside, labourers are building an elaborate 10m-high steel and concrete map of the world topped by giant red characters declaring: “Construction of a New Airport City for the Capital.”
Migrant workers, who live in tents on the site, said they had started work last month on the paving and fountains for the monument.
This follows the inclusion earlier this year of a new capital airport in the government’s latest five-year plan.
It was only four years ago that the existing airport in the north of the city opened a huge third terminal ahead of the Beijing Olympics. Designed by the British architect, Norman Foster, it was then the world’s biggest airport building, with more floor space than all five Heathrow terminals combined. But it has filled faster than expected due to the rapid growth of China’s economy.
Last year, the airport handled 73.9 million passengers. By 2015, this is expected to rise to 90 million – 12 million more than it was designed for.
Beijing authorities have said they will start work this year on land acquisition and demolition for a new airport. In addition to a semi-military airport in Nanyuan, this first phase – due for completion in 2015 – will give the city the capacity to handle 120 million passengers a year. Depending on growth, this would see Beijing overtake London and Tokyo, which each had about 100 million in 2010. Even by Chinese standards, the proposals for the later stages of construction are staggering.
According to the domestic media and sources familiar with the project, the new airport is being designed to ultimately handle between 120 million and 200 million passengers, and have eight civilian runways and perhaps another for the military if Nanyuan is closed. Denver international airport currently has the most runways in the world with six.
Once completed, the new airport will be connected to a new expressway and high-speed train line that will speed travellers to the centre of the city in 30 minutes. Today, however, Daxing is more than an hour’s drive away.
Rumours about the exact location have been circulating for several years. Most focus on Nangezhuan, a village in Daxing not far from the new monument, which is set amid corn fields, orchards and fruit sellers hawking pears under red umbrellas.
Locals live in white-washed, one-storey brick homes, many of which are scruffily daubed with phone-numbers advertising well-digging companies. Incomes here are low – about 1,200 yuan (£105) to 2,500 (£215) per month. But expectations are high for the new airport and the money it might bring.
“Everything you can see will be airport,” said Cui Hongxian, a farmer who owns a quarter hectare of land, with confidence. “We haven’t negotiated yet, but I’ve heard they will start building next year.”
Many others are hoping for economic benefits – and not just in Beijing. The government’s latest five-year economic plan calls for the expansion of eight international airports, the construction of many more new smaller airports and feasibility studies for new aviation hubs in Chengdu, Qingdao and Xiamen. It has also promised to open up private aviation, which will allow China’s mega-rich to splurge on luxury private jets as well as their Lambourghinis, Rolls Royce and Aston Martins.
China’s aviation industry is already booming. Last year, it reported a profit of 43bn yuan (£3.9bn), triple the figure for the previous year. In the coming 20 years, China is forecast to buy 4,300 new jet aircraft. But there are concerns that the environmental impacts are being overlooked.
As well as the noise, traffic, loss of arable land and threat to birds, airports are a major source of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Depending on the size of the aircraft, the burning of fuel during a single flight produces between 8-50kg of nitrogen oxide as well as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and sulphur oxide.
“I’m concerned aviation has not had as much attention as traditional high-emission industries and people have not really changed the way they think about travel,” said Li Yan of Greenpeace.
As Chinese people fly further and more frequently, she said transport is taking up a bigger share of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions – which are already the highest in the world.
Compared to the US and Europe, China’s aviation sector is small, but it is catching up fast. This is inevitable, said Yang Fuqiang of the Natural Resources Defence Council, a US-based NGO, who urged airlines to improve energy efficiency among airlines, passengers to use carbon offsetting and the government to monitor emissions from aviation more closely.