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No new runways before 2050 but more action needed to stabilise aviation emissions, says Government

25th August, 2011

Following its announcement last year that no new runways would be built at Heathrow, Gatwick or Stansted, a Government document published today suggests the policy may be extended throughout the UK. The Government report was a response to a 2009 study by the Committee on Climate Change on how a target of stabilising aviation emissions at 2005 levels by 2050 could be achieved. Revised Government forecasts of air passenger demand and CO2 emissions assume that no new runways will be built during the period, with increases only in terminal capacity.

Even with no new runways anywhere in the UK, however, the forecasts suggest that on current trends, emissions from UK aviation will grow from 37.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, or MtCO2, in 2005 to around 49 MtCO2 by 2050. In order to keep emissions at or below their 2005 level – the policy set out under the last government – additional steps would be needed. The report does not at this stage endorse the 2005 target or set out a plan of action, but considers the relative costs and benefits of various steps that could be taken to reduce aviation emissions from their forecast levels. Further constraints on airport infrastructure were found in this analysis to be a more cost effective way of reducing emissions than the introduction of tighter technology standards.

Concern over costs analysis

AEF believes that no further airport expansion should take place until appropriate environmental limits have been defined by Government, and has conducted research which suggests that air traffic growth up to the maximum permitted under a CO2 stabilisation target is possible without any new additional runway or terminal capacity. So we very much welcome indications that the Government is focussing on how to meet environmental targets within existing airport infrastructure.

We are disappointed, however, that the range of policy levers considered for tackling aviation’s predicted emissions growth is so limited. While ‘behaviour change’ was identified as one of only two options predicted to deliver both CO2 reductions and cost savings, for example, the only policy measure considered was the provision of information to the public on the impact of long-haul flights, (which generate much higher levels of CO2 than short haul flights); options for directly incentivising greener travel choices were not analysed.

We also have concerns about the Government’s analysis of the costs and benefits of biofuel development for aviation. The report suggests that in order to avoid passengers and airlines having to pay extra for developing non-fossil fuels, support would need to come the public purse – yet another subsidy for airlines, who will save money if they are able to use biofuels because they will not need to buy as many permits to comply with the EU emissions trading system.

Furthermore, it fails to reflect widespread concerns about the sustainability of biofuel production. While the Committee on Climate Change suggested that if 10% of airlines fuel use was from biofuels by 2050 the result might be a 5% cut in CO2 emissions (because using natural resources for growing biofuels can put pressure on agriculture which results in increased CO2), today’s report from the Department for Transport assumes that the production and burning of biofuels result in zero emissions. While stating that biofuels should be sustainable, it makes no comment on what sustainability standards should apply.

Ongoing scoping study consultation

The Government is currently consulting on a wide-ranging review of UK aviation policy, and to allow respondents to consider this new report (which was due to have been published by the end of July), the consultation deadline has been extended from the end of September until Thursday 20th October. AEF believes that a clear emissions target for UK aviation is an essential component of future policy for the sector and will argue strongly for this in our response to the consultation.