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How well did the Airports Commission’s interim report do on our three environmental and social tests?

20th December, 2013

Before publishing the interim report, Sir Howard Davies and the Airports Commission he chairs emphasised the importance of not simply providing the capacity that industry demands in deciding the need for additional runway capacity. Instead, Sir Howard argued that the Commission engaged with wider social and environmental issues, that the Commission was “alive to the climate problem” and that local issues such as air pollution and noise would “play a key part as we identify our interim recommendations”.

We therefore set three tests for the Airports Commission in advance of the interim report to see how far it engaged with these wider concerns (the basis for each test is available here). Below we compare the main findings of the report with each of the tests.  In the New Year, AEF will be releasing a series of policy briefs looking at the Airports Commission’s work in more detail. A summary of the interim report’s findings and recommendations is available here.

First Test: Does the Commission demonstrate a pathway to meet our national climate change target in a one or two new runways scenario using realistic assumptions?

Positive steps

The interim report makes significant improvements on DfT forecasts of growth in passenger demand up to 2050 which had limitations in terms of how they handled uncertainty beyond 2030 (as the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) provides forecasts of oil prices up to this year only). Our concern over the long-term uncertainty of DfT forecasts was referenced in the interim report.

In the revised forecasts, the Airports Commission also include carbon traded and carbon capped scenarios. This is an improvement on the scenarios currently considered by the DfT. The carbon traded scenarios include the assumption that aviation emissions will be included in an emissions trading system such as a global offset scheme. Carbon capped scenarios include the assumption that aviation emissions will be limited to the recommendations by the Committee on Climate Change that emissions can be no higher in 2050 than they were in 2005.

The latter scenario produces the lowest forecast of constrained and unconstrained growth. In an unconstrained carbon capped scenario, the Airports Commission estimate that passengers can increase by 67% above 2009 levels while the number of movements (number of planes flying) can increase by 38% (compared to 60% and 55% respectively in the CCC’s 2009 analysis).

Missed opportunities

The interim report highlights the ongoing uncertainty in international negotiations and the fact that non-CO2 impacts of aviation may need to be taken into account in the future, but offers no indication of how much the industry can grow in the absence of an effective emissions trading scheme in the future or if non-CO2 impacts are included in climate targets.

Second Test: Does the Airports Commission only shortlist options that will not worsen the quality of life for communities around airports?

Positive steps

At the very beginning of the executive summary, the report emphasises the negative impacts of air quality and noise on the quality of life for people who live or work nearby, and that the planning process must ensure that decisions on airport capacity balance local considerations with the national interest. However, the Airports Commission will only be able to take the local impacts into account next year when it considers the short-listed options in detail.

The Airports Commission also recommended the creation of an Independent Aviation Noise Authority which would provide advice and recommendations on an impartial basis. As the Commission points out, there is a real need for improved transparency in noise reporting by the industry as noise causes the most tension with communities. The interim report also points to good examples from Australia and France of independent noise bodies providing accurate and impartial information to all stakeholders.

Missed opportunities

As we highlight in a Huffington Post blog post, the Airports Commission’s staged approach means that local considerations appear an afterthought, which will leave people living in communities seeking reassurances from politicians.

However, the Commission is to set out its draft Appraisal Framework in early 2014 on how the different options should be considered and analysed. That will present an opportunity for the Commission to demonstrate how local concerns will be considered.

There is also a concern that forming an independent noise body would constitute passing the baton of noise regulation on and not actually contribute to improve the current noise problem.

Third Test: In light of extensive challenges to the assumptions of economic benefits of expansion and recommendations by a well known economic consultancy firm[ix], does the Airports Commission commit to carrying out a Social Cost Benefit Analysis of each of the shortlisted proposals over the course of 2014?

Positive steps

The interim report highlights that the Commissions has not followed a “mechanistic predict and provide model.”

The Commission states that their approach has been informed by the principles of the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) Directive to support the Government’s decision. The Commission also says that the methodology used takes account of the social and environmental costs of policy options alongside their anticipated benefits.

The interim report also states that social cost-benefit analysis is the standard methodology used in the public sector but then says that the costs involved are primarily those of a constrained airport and calculates the overall cost to the economy by 2080 will be up to £45 billion.

Missed opportunities

It appears that the social cost-benefit analysis calculated only takes into account the possible negatives of a constrained airport, and not the potential benefits. We would like more detailed information on the different factors that were included in the analysis.

However, as well as stating the need for one additional runway by 2030, the Commission states that it is likely that there will be “a demand case for a second additional runway way by 2050”. The Commission commits to analysing this possibility in the next phase of its work programme.

We expect the Airports Commission to carry out a clear and transparent social cost benefit analysis of each of shortlisted options as part of their appraisal in 2014, as the Commission has promised to take into account the economic, social and environmental impacts.

We will go into more detail on each of these issues in the New Year with a series of policy briefs about the Airports Commission’s work.