Airport expansion and UK climate policy: a mess that needs urgent attention

The IPCC report of 28th February was clear that action has to be taken, fast, to reduce carbon emissions, if there is to be a “liveable future” for all.  Carbon emissions should halve by 2030, to give the world a chance of not increasing the temperature more than 1.5C above pre-industrial. But with the eyes of the world on the war in Ukraine, it did no get the reporting and the discussion it deserved.  Airports in the UK (and elsewhere) continue to plan, not only for more flights and passengers, but for more infrastructure to enable yet more expansion. The UK is currently not on track to meet its 4th and 5th carbon budgets, going up to 2032. The government’s climate advisors, the Climate Change Committee, say “there is no room for airport expansions”.  Local authorities say the carbon emissions from the expansion are not their problem but for national government to decide. But the UK still has no policy on aviation carbon, assessed across all airports. National planning policy guidance for local councils about climate change and aviation is out of date and contradictory, with airports claiming the law encourages them to “make best use of” existing infrastructure. Proper joined up policy is needed quickly. See full piece by Nick Hodgkinson


Airport expansion and UK climate policy: a mess that needs urgent attention

This post is by Nick Hodgkinson of the Group for Action on Leeds Bradford Airport.

28 March, 2022

Author: Green Alliance Blog

“The cumulative scientific evidence is unequivocal: climate change is a threat to human well-being and planetary health. Any further delay in concerted anticipatory global action on adaptation and mitigation will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable future for all.” So says the IPCC report published on 28 February 2022. Yet, airports around the UK, and their greenhouse gas emissions, are being allowed to expand. Why?

In January 2020, the owners of Leeds Bradford Airport submitted a planning application to Leeds City Council seeking permission for changes that would allow them to increase the airport’s passenger numbers by 75 per cent, from four million to seven million per year. The airport claimed this would mean 1,500 new jobs. It would also mean 16,000 more flights annually and – depending on how you calculate them – the airport’s greenhouse gas emissions would more or less double by 2030.

“There is no room for airport expansions”

The IPCC has warned that by 2030 all emissions must be halved to retain a chance of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5oC and securing “a liveable future”. The UK is currently off track to meet its fourth and fifth carbon budgets which set targets for emissions reductions. This means, in the words of Climate Change Committee’s (CCC’s) chair Lord Deben, “there is no room for airport expansions”. But on 11 February 2021, fourteen Leeds planning committee councillors approved the Leeds Bradford Airport expansion by nine votes to five, less than two years after Leeds City Council had declared a climate emergency. The Leeds local planning committee, like others around the country, took the view that curbing aviation emissions is a matter for national government, while reaping the alleged economic benefits of airport expansion is a matter for local government.

It’s reasonable to say that national planning policy guidance for local councils about climate change and aviation is out of date and contradictory. For example, Leeds Bradford Airport argued that the 2018 ‘Making best use of existing runways’ policy overrides the UK’s legally binding 2019 target to reach net zero by 2050. This was accepted by the planning committee. The ‘headroom’ allowance for international aviation emissions in the Climate Change Act also gave councillors the opportunity to decide that, because those emissions were not expressly included in UK carbon budgets, they could be left out of consideration completely in their decision making.

The government’s Jet Zero strategy is due

There have been important developments in both policy and science since the Leeds planning committee decision last February. Aviation emissions are now formally included in the UK’s sixth carbon budget; the CCC has recommended there should be no net expansion of UK airport capacity; government ‘carbon values’ (the monetised cost of emissions) have tripled; and the IPCC has published two new reports, stressing the increasingly urgent need to reduce emissions. Later this year, following a second consultation process, the government’s Jet Zero strategy will be published. New Department for Transport aviation demand forecasts are also expected later this year which will (hopefully) use the updated ‘carbon values’ to give a more realistic indication of the climate cost of flying.

So the policy landscape is changing but it’s hard to see how UK aviation policy will be more aligned with the country’s commitment to the Paris Agreement by the summer if the government continues to allow airports to expand and refuses to tax flying fairly.

There will be no major technological solutions soon

According to the CCC: “Aviation is likely to be the largest emitting sector in the UK by 2050, even with strong progress on technology and limiting demand”. Strong progress on technology, eg sustainable aviation fuels, would be welcome but there is almost no prospect of major breakthroughs at a commercial scale within the next two decades. So demand limitation is the only immediate policy lever available to prevent aviation emissions growing. Will the government change its mind and stop airports expanding? Will it introduce a frequent flyer levy or other types of tax to discourage flying?

The UK aviation industry thinks not. It expects to increase passenger numbers by over 60 per cent by 2050 and several airports are actively planning to expand: Heathrow, Stansted, Gatwick, Luton, Bristol, Southampton, Liverpool and London City. The New Economics Foundation has calculated that expanding just four of these airports would mean an increase in annual emissions of up to 3.7 million tonnes in 2035, the year of the government’s 75 per cent emissions reduction target.

It seems absurd that the combined impact of all these expansions on the UK’s emissions reduction targets is not being assessed, either by local or national government. There’s an urgent need for a cumulative climate impact assessment of the UK’s growing airport capacity.

Finally, did you notice that Leeds Bradford Airport is not in the list of expanding airports above? That’s because its owners withdrew their planning application in March 2022 rather than face a public inquiry. The Group for Action on Leeds Bradford Airport was formed to stop the airport expanding and, after two years of campaigning, we have succeeded. But we’re keeping a close eye on developments. We are also backing the Bristol Airport Action Network, whose legal challenge against Bristol Airport expansion is imminent. Their challenge is an opportunity to bring some much needed clarity to the mess that is UK climate and aviation policy. Watch this space…


See earlier:

DfT launches new technical consultation on its “jet zero” (ie. huge future SAF use) plans

The UK government currently does not have an aviation policy, and is aware that this will first require policy decisions on aviation carbon emissions.  It hopes that air travel demand will not need to be reduced (the most effective way to control the level of emissions) but instead hopes for “jet zero” flying, largely using novel fuels. These are called SAF (sustainable aviation fuels) and the hope is that they emit less carbon, over their lifecycle, than conventional jet fuel. Now the government has opened a consultation which it calls “Further consultation on the updated evidence and analysis to inform the different pathways to achieve net zero aviation – or jet zero – by 2050.” It lasts until 25th April. There was an initial consultation on “jet zero” in July 2021. This consultation is technical (so not easy for most people to respond to). The consultation is unrealistically hoping there might be 50% of SAF use by 2050, with 27% of flights being “net zero” by 2050. It also assumes a continuous 2% increase in efficiency each year, and a 70% increase in air passengers (cf. 2018) when the earlier estimate was a 60% increase.

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The cancelling of expansion plans by Leeds Bradford may make other airports less confident about theirs

Leeds Bradford Airport has withdrawn its plans to build a new terminal. That expansion would have allowed a higher number of flights and passenger, as well as carbon emissions. The airport was not keen on having to defend a planning inquiry. Now it is likely that the confidence of other UK airports in their expansion plans may have been reduced.  The Aviation Environment Federation (AEF) emphasised the potential impact of the decision, saying: “There are mounting uncertainties for airports both about when passenger demand will return and about the conclusions that decision-makers will reach about the measures necessary to deliver net zero aviation. This is an important victory for local campaigners. While the airport claims it can still grow using its existing permissions, the reality – as the airport itself previously argued – is that it will struggle to launch new routes without the change it was seeking to its operating hours.”   New Economic Foundation senior researcher Alex Chapman said that to prevent “climate breakdown”, society needs to “start making different choices and the era of corporate greenwash needs to end”.

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UK airport expansion plans mean higher aviation emissions – making a mockery of “net zero” targets

The carbon emissions from UK aviation according to the Climate Change Committee (CCC), were 39.3 MtCO2 in 2018. They were a little higher in 2019, making up 8% of total UK emissions. The CCC advised the government that for its Sixth Carbon Budget (2033 – 37) the carbon emissions of the UK should fall by 63% from their 2019 level. And “net zero” by 2050.  The CCC has advised the government that there should be “no net airport expansion”. But the government has ignored this advice, and recently government inspectors have allowed expansion plans at Stansted and Bristol.  Southampton and Leeds Bradford airports are trying to get expansion approval. So instead of making every effort to cut UK aviation emissions, things are going in the opposite direction. Stansted Airport Watch says that, taken together, the airport expansion proposals that have been approved in the past year, and those in the pipeline, will increase UK airport capacity to over 500 million passengers per annum. This compares to 297 million passengers in 2019, before Covid, and 292 million in 2018.  “With so much extra airport capacity in the pipeline, there will be no prospect of aviation achieving the Government’s objective of net zero emissions by 2050.”

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