Skip to content

Flying into trouble: London airport expansion would mean slashing growth at regional airports to meet UK climate targets

19th June, 2015


Flying into trouble: London airport expansion would mean slashing growth at regional airports to meet UK climate targets

Airports Commission set to hand Government an incomplete analysis with no convincing answers on how to limit emissions

Building an extra runway at Heathrow or Gatwick airport would mean slashing the projected number of flights to and from airports in all other parts of the UK in order to meet the UK’s climate targets. In a new report [1] the Aviation Environment Federation (AEF) [2], the UK’s leading environmental organisation working exclusively on aviation’s impacts, criticises the Airports Commission for failing to put forward credible policies on curtailing carbon emissions and calls on the Government to reject its report pending a proper analysis on the carbon challenge.

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC), the Government’s statutory advisor, says annual emissions from aviation should not exceed 37.5 Mt (million tonnes) by 2050. The Airports Commission’s own analysis shows that under current trends, this limit will be breached even in the absence of a new runway. However, the Commission is widely expected to compound the problem by recommending expansion at either Heathrow or Gatwick putting UK aviation in further breach of the CCC’s cap, without explaining how the additional emissions can be squared with climate policy.

The Airports Commission has simply failed to make a convincing argument that airport expansion in the South East can be compatible with the UK’s carbon emissions legislation,” said Cait Hewitt, Deputy Director of the Aviation Environment Federation.

The only way to make emissions fit with climate legislation if you build a new South East runway would be to limit growth in the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ and other regions, which would directly contradict Government policy for regional airport growth and be impossible in practice to deliver.”

Using the Commission’s own modeling of how aviation in various regions would respond to economic constraints on flying, AEF calculates that compared to the growth currently expected, a new Heathrow runway would mean:

  • 36% fewer passengers per year flying in and out of airports in the southwest of England by 2050
  • Scottish airports losing 11% of passengers
  • A 14% cut in the northwest of England (where Chancellor George Osborne hopes to grow a ‘northern powerhouse’ economy’)
  • In the West Midlands, a whopping 55% drop in passengers.

A Gatwick runway would imply less serious cuts, the Commission’s forecasts suggest, on the assumption that a new runway there would cater predominantly for short-haul flights with comparatively lower emissions, but it would still see contraction in all regions compared with the growth currently forecast.

The Airports Commission says that with ‘capped emissions’ a new runway is justified, but it has so far put forward no credible policies for achieving the cap. Limiting aviation emissions is required under the UK Climate Change Act, which Prime Minister David Cameron recently pledged to support.

AEF also shows that in making its case for the economic benefit of expansion, the Commission has not factored in the national or regional costs of capping aviation emissions in line with the Climate Change Act, despite being specifically requested to do so by the CCC. If aviation blows its budget, other sectors, such as agriculture, would have to shoulder tougher carbon cuts than the CCC considers feasible.

“The Airports Commission has done a half-baked analysis that puts any claim of an overall economic benefit to the UK in serious doubt,” said Cait Hewitt.

As with its last minute, three-week long consultation on air quality, it just hasn’t taken seriously the climate change challenge to expansion, and will be handing back an incomplete and ill thought-through piece of work to Government.”

Independent studies have found that technological and operational measures have limited potential to reduce emissions, leaving the onus on policy-makers to take action: in future only marginal improvements in aircraft efficiency will be possible, and the Government estimates that only 2.5% of aviation fuel is likely to come from alternative sources by 2050.


Notes to Editors

[1] The full report is available here.

[2] The Aviation Environment Federation is the leading UK organisation campaigning exclusively on the environmental impacts of aviation. We represent community groups and individuals around many of the UK’s airports and airfields. Further information can be found on our website.

For more information contact the AEF office on 020 3102 1509