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Airports Commission publishes climate paper

The Airports Commission, appointed by Government to advise on the possible need for new airport capacity in the UK, has today published the third in its series of issues papers. This most recent publication considers aviation’s climate change impacts, as well as the possible impact of climate change effects on any future infrastructure.

The Commission appears keen for the UK to avoid disadvantaging itself economically through constraints on airport capacity, and quotes the Committee on Climate Change as expressing a preference for European or international climate measures over unilateral action in the UK. Nevertheless the Commission notes that European action on aviation emissions – through implementation of the EU ETS for all arriving and departing flights – has been partially suspended for one year in the hope that progress can be made on an international approach to aviation emissions. And it acknowledges that there have also been problems with the effectiveness of EU ETS in recent years related to an oversupply of carbon credits.

In terms of UK action on aviation emissions, the paper acknowledges that while aviation is currently not formally included in the UK’s Climate Act and carbon budgets, both the Committee on Climate Change and the Government itself have made allowance in the budgets for inclusion of the sector in future. As the assumption for the purpose of the budgets has been that aviation emissions will remain constant at the level of the EU ETS cap for aviation, and as this cap is close to the figure for the 2005 emissions level from UK aviation, “a significant overshoot of 2005 aviation emissions levels in 2050 would suggest more challenging reductions in other sectors”, suggests the paper.

AEF’s view is that such an overshoot would effectively make it impossible to achieve the aims of the Climate Act, as it would assume reductions of greater than 90% from other sectors of the economy. The paper devotes a whole chapter to consideration of possible ‘carbon leakage’ that may arise if the UK were to impose constraints on airport expansion for climate reasons while other EU states imposed none (the model used assumes unlimited growth at competitor, hubs, for example).

Yet it is clear from figures presented by the Commission that, as we have previously shown, even assuming that airport capacity is constrained to current levels, that APD continues, and that aviation is included in EU ETS or a comparable global measure, forecast demand growth remains significantly higher than the level compatible with climate targets. In other words, if we want to meet these targets, new measures should be considered for constraining emissions, and unconstrained aviation growth with new runways should be out of the question.

A situation in which the UK was the only EU member to take action on aviation emissions seems, meanwhile, extremely unlikely. All major economies have committed to carbon dioxide reductions of 80% of 1990 levels by 2050, matching the UK’s legally binding commitment, and the EU-wide 2020 emissions reduction target includes aviation. It is also worth noting that both France and Germany are now witnessing significant public opposition to airport expansion on the grounds of noise and landscape impacts, with thousands of campaigners in Frankfurt meeting weekly for the past 18 months to call for closure of the airport’s fourth runway.

The Commission paper is available here. Or you can download our copy here.