Research sets out clearly how the need to take climate change seriously rules out any new UK runway

A new research study by the Aviation Environment Federation (AEF) shows that the need to take climate change seriously rules out any new runway – at Heathrow or at Gatwick. The study, commissioned by GACC, particularly shows that, for the UK to play its part in making December’s Paris Agreement on climate work, must mean cancelling plans for a new UK runway. The Airports Commission’s work shows they were well aware of the problem of UK aviation emissions exceeding their cap level of 37.5MtCO2 per year, but this was brushed under the carpet. Even with no new runway, while all other industries in the UK are – by law – due to decrease their CO2 emissions by 85% on average (by 2050 compared to their 1990 level), aviation is permitted to increase its pollution by 120%. If a new runway is built, that would be even higher.  The hope of an effective world-wide CO2 emissions trading scheme succeeding in limiting emissions looks impossible to achieve. Big tax increases on flights, in order to limit demand when there has been expansion with a new runway, would be political dynamite. Limiting growth at regional airports, to permit full use of a new south east runway, would not be helpful to the regions. “It is time for the Government to stand up to the lobbying by the aviation industry, and tell them that there will be no new runway.” A new runway means storing up unnecessary problems in future. 


Climate Rules Out Runway


By GACC – Gatwick Area Conservation Campaign

The need to take climate change seriously rules out any new runway – at Heathrow or at Gatwick. That is the conclusion of a new research study published by GACC.

Written by Cait Hewitt, Deputy Director of the Aviation Environment Federation (AEF), “Gatwick in perspective: Climate Change and a new Runway” shows that the agreement in Paris last December by all the nations of the world to put tougher limits on climate change, must mean cancelling plans for a new runway.

‘If we are to prevent great climate disasters in future,’ said Cait, ‘we have got to slow down the growth in air travel. Big tax increases would be political dynamite, and the alternative of an effective world-wide emissions trading scheme looks impossible to achieve. In an old phrase it’s just pie in the sky.’

The research study shows how every other industry in the UK is – by law –  due to decrease their CO2 emissions by – 85% on average, but that aviation is permitted to increase their pollution in the sky by + 120% (by 2050 compared to 1990 level).  If a new runway is built it would be even higher.

GACC chairman, Brendon Sewill, commented: ‘In 2010 new runways at Heathrow or Gatwick were ruled out by the Government on the grounds of climate change, but more recently this crucial issue has been ignored in all the debate about runways. It is time for the Government to stand up to the lobbying by the aviation industry, and tell them that there will be no new runway.’

Author Cait added: ‘If we go ahead with building a new runway we will be storing up serious trouble for future generations.’

The research study is number 4 in the new series being published by GACC. Previous studies have been on Ambient Noise, Paying for a New Gatwick Runway, and Gatwick and Tax. They are available on

See study:   “Gatwick in perspective: Climate Change and a new Runway.”  (12 pages)

For further information contact
Cait Hewitt at 07966 461 955  or  Brendon Sewill at 01293 863369

The study’s conclusion states:


The Climate Change Act commits the UK to cutting emissions by 80% by 2050. The Government’s official climate watchdog has specified that in order to meet this economy-wide target, emissions from flights departing from the UK can be no higher than 37.5 Mt CO2 – equivalent to a quarter of UK emissions by 2050. This represents a minimum level of ambition and the target should probably in fact be tightened both to allow for aviation’s non-CO2 impacts and to meet the ambition of the December 2015 climate agreement in Paris.

But none of the official bodies you might expect to be overseeing delivery of the target – the Committee on Climate Change, the Government or the Airports Commission – has ever set out a plan for doing so, and emissions are currently set to overshoot their maximum level even without airport expansion. The Commission’s argument that a new runway at Heathrow or Gatwick is theoretically compatible with the target conceals the fact that in reality it would be impossible to achieve.

With all countries now committed to CO2 limitations, aviation emissions are likely to come under increasing scrutiny. But the current plan for a global measure to limit emissions falls a long way short of the action needed to tackle the UK’s significant aviation CO2 challenge and, even if successful, will need to be complemented by other measures. Saying no to new runways is the obvious first step towards ensuring that the UK avoids locking itself into carbon intensive infrastructure and instead makes investment choices that help to deliver a low carbon economy.


The section on the Airports Commission states:

The runways debate and the work of the Airports Commission

The last Labour Government ended up with a policy of theoretical support for Heathrow expansion, together with proposed environmental conditions that would in fact have ruled out any aircraft actually using the new runway. In the run-up to the 2010 election, both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, in contrast, adopted clear party policy opposing new runways anywhere in the South East and when the Coalition formed in 2010 it adopted policy that no new runways at Heathrow, Gatwick or Stansted would be pursued during its term of government.

A new aviation policy was drawn up on the basis that, as argued by the Transport Secretary Phillip Hammond, “The previous government’s 2003 White Paper, The Future of Air Transport, is fundamentally out of date, because it fails to give sufficient weight to the challenge of climate change. In maintaining its support for new runways – in particular at Heathrow – in the face of the local environmental impacts and mounting evidence of aviation’s growing contribution towards climate change, the previous government got the balance wrong. It failed to adapt its policies to the fact that climate change has become one of the gravest threats we face.”

But the new policy avoided specific mention of runways, and pressure quickly re-emerged for a review of the Government’s position. The Government’s solution was to set up the Airports Commission, headed by economist Sir Howard Davies, to review the question of whether new airport capacity was required in order to maintain the UK’s hub status.

The Commission’s brief made no explicit mention of climate change and did not ask whether a new runway would be compatible with climate objectives. And while in theory the Commission could have advised against expansion, in reality the setting of a two year timetable in which the first year was to address the question of ‘whether’ and the second year the question of ‘where’ left no opportunity to conclude that the answer was no new runways. But to be taken seriously it would need to give the impression of having carefully considered all environmental impacts associated with its final recommendation.

The Airports Commission’s approach on climate change was threefold:

1. Minimise the problem. The Commission conducted its own CO2 forecasting that reduced the scale of the emissions challenge. An aircraft efficiency improvement of 1.1% per annum was adopted, and passenger growth levels for regional airports were downgraded significantly compared with the latest Government forecast.

2. Assume that someone else solves the problem. The Commission constructed a model under which someone, presumably the Government, was assumed to have devised a policy to actually enforce a carbon cap. It then assessed what theoretical pattern of passenger demand would follow. Because CO2 is forecast to exceed the level of the carbon cap even in the ‘no new runway’ baseline, the only way to make room for a runway’s worth of emissions would be to restrict growth at other airports. Unsurprisingly, in the Commission’s theoretical ‘carbon capped’ model, building a new runway at either Heathrow or Gatwick meant that demand was lower in every UK region aside from London and the South East compared to a ‘no new runway’ scenario. This information, however, is entirely at odds with the Commission’s narrative about a new runway being good for the whole of the country and was left hidden in the modelling.

How, though, would such a scenario come about? Would the Government introduce retrospective planning controls on all these airports? Would it introduce large price hikes on tickets? For its interim report, the Commission estimated that imposing a carbon price of £600 per tonne in order to deliver a carbon cap would mean adding £43 to short-haul fares and £205 to long-haul fares. But how such a carbon price or tax would be introduced, the Commission argued, was for the Government to decide. While the Airports Commission set out some theoretical options in a technical paper ‘Carbon Policy Sensitivity Test’ (raising the carbon price, increasing biofuel use, and introducing various operational measures such as slower aircraft cruise) these proposals were unconvincing,13 and none of them made it into the report’s final recommendations.

3. Suggest that the problem does not need solving anyway. The Commission also presented an alternative model under which aviation’s CO2 impacts are allowed to overshoot the carbon cap. This was cleverly labelled the ‘carbon traded’ model, giving the impression that it represented an alternative policy approach for managing aviation emissions. But in fact there is little evidence to suggest that carbon trading in isolation – even if it is extended to cover all aviation emissions – will be able to meet the climate challenge, as discussed below.

What the Commission was of course unable to do was to show how a new runway could in reality be compatible with the Climate Change Act. But by using the words carbon and climate change often enough, while also recommending expansion, the impression was created that somehow climate change impacts had been dealt with and accounted for.


GACC research studies – (more will be published in due course)


1.  Ambient Noise.  A study of the importance of taking background noise into account when assessing the number of people likely to be affected by noise from a new runway.

Read research study.  And press release.

2.  Paying for a new Gatwick Runway A new runway will mean 100% increase in airport charges.  And that may cause some airlines to move to Stansted or Luton.  Read research study and press release.

3. Gatwick Airport and Tax.  Shows how Gatwick earns large profits but pays no corporation tax.

Read research study.  And press release.

4. Climate Change and a New Runway.  The Agreement reached in Paris in December 2015 by all nations rules out any new runway at either Gatwick or Heathrow.

Read research study and press release.