Plans to expand UK airport capacity are “based on a wing and a prayer” and “not rooted in the real world” according to two reports from environmental groups.
The organisations challenge the Whitehall-appointed Airports Commission’s claim that it is possible to build a new runway and still meet the Government’s climate change targets.
They also argue that building a new runway in the south east would worsen the north/south divide, as growth at the regional airports would need to be constrained in order to ensure CO2 emissions from aviation fall to their 2005 levels by 2050.
The groups say that if aviation emissions were allowed to soar it would impose costs on the rest of the economy rising to between £1 billion and £8.4 billion per year or more by 2050 as non-aviation sectors would need to make even deeper emissions cuts.
The two reports have been released by the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds), nature charity the WWF and by Aviation Environment Federation (AEF).
The Airports Commission is considering just where airport expansion should go ahead and will publish its final report in summer 2015.
One of the reports out today, from the RSPB, said the commission had assumed that climate change targets could be met as aviation emissions will be constrained by regulatory measures.
But the report found that the regulatory regime is still aspirational – or is so weak as to be ineffective. It argues “We are therefore basing our decision to build a new runway on a world as we would like it to be – rather than as it currently exists.”
The report concludes that, in order to comply with the Climate Change Act, the only options are to manage future demand by increasing the cost of carbon which would see fares soar to unrealistically high levels or constrain capacity at airports by ruling out any new runways.
The groups said that the second report, from the Aviation Environment Federation and commissioned by WWF-UK, showed that it was impossible to build an additional runway in south east England and keep aviation emissions consistent with meeting UK climate targets, without cutting airport capacity elsewhere.
In practice, this could mean that many regional airports would need either to be closed or limited to operating fewer flights than today’s levels, the groups said.
They added that this would conflict with both Government and commercial forecasts, which anticipate at least 200% growth by 2050, and also exacerbate the north/south divide.
RSPB’s economist Adam Dutton, the author of his group’s report, said: “The rest of the economy will be heavily penalised if emissions from aviation are not constrained.”
AEF deputy director and report author Cait Hewitt said: “The commission and future governments have a choice to make: either allow aviation expansion in the south east and heavily constrain regional airports or let regional airports grow within the capacity they already have but don’t build any new runways. But climate change limits mean that you can’t do both.”
Jean Leston, head of transport at WWF-UK, said: “Thinking that you can build a new runway at Heathrow or Gatwick while still keeping to UK climate targets is being over-optimistic and using assumptions that are based on a wing and a prayer, not on the real world.
“When it comes to airport expansion, climate change isn’t ‘dealt with’ as an issue.”
The two reports:
One page summary – Wing and a Prayer Event
CCC confirm UK air passenger rise of 60% by 2050 only possible if carbon intensify of flying improves by one third
The Committee on Climate Change has reported to Parliament on progress on the UK’s carbon budgets. They say: “Under the current rate of progress future budgets will not all be met.” Carbon budgets do not currently include emissions from international aviation and shipping, but these are included in the 2050 carbon target. The government will review aviation’s inclusion in carbon budgets in 2016. In 2012 the UK’s international aviation emitted 32 MtCO2, and domestic aviation 1.6 MtCO2. The CCC and the Airports Commission say a new runway can fit within climate targets, but their own figures show aviation growth exceeding the target for decades. Growth in passengers of “around” 60% above 2005 levels could only fit within the carbon target if there is an improvement in the carbon intensity of aviation of around one-third by 2050. The Airports Commission’s own interim report says there can only be 36% growth in flights by 2050, to stay within targets. They say any more growth than that should not happen, “unless and until” there are the necessary technology improvements, cutting aviation emissions. But neither the government, nor the CCC, nor the Airports Commission can pin down what these will be, or when they will happen. UK aviation emissions remain the highest in Europe.