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Government must prove that Heathrow expansion won’t breach climate legislation, say official climate advisers

25th November, 2016

The Chair of the Committee on Climate Change, Lord Deben, this week challenged the Government to come up with an answer on aviation emissions if it wants to go ahead with Heathrow expansion. Deben set out the Committee’s concerns in an open letter to the Energy Secretary, arguing that the Government’s business case for Heathrow expansion should have taken into account the need to limit UK aviation emissions to no more than 37.5 Mt.

Speaking on Radio 4 today, he said that the CCC’s long-held view is that in order to meet the requirements of the Climate Change Act, aviation emissions should, by 2050, be no higher than in 2005, and that this “is now the law of the land” by way of legislated carbon budgets. Asked about the Committee’s view on the topic of Heathrow expansion, he said “It’s nothing to do with our Committee whether you have a third runway or not; what’s to do with our Committee is that whatever you do you have to do it within the budget for emissions”.

The Airports Commission, in its analysis of the impacts of Heathrow expansion, modelled two possible scenarios. One, the ‘carbon capped’ scenario, assumed that aviation emissions at a national level were limited in line with the requirements of the Climate Change Act. The Commission remained hazy on how this might be achieved, instead arguing that this was down to Government to work out, but the modelling implied large increases in ticket prices driving down demand at a national level, particularly at airports outside the South East. The other approach, the ‘carbon traded’ scenario, assumed only that aviation was included in a global carbon market.

In the Government papers accompanying its announcement of support for a new runway at Heathrow, however, as we noted on the day, it very quietly dropped the carbon capped model on the basis, it seems, of the Airports Commission’s conclusion that after factoring in the emissions of a new runway, achieving the carbon cap is “unrealistic in future policy terms”.

While this move seems to have been hidden as carefully as possible from public and political scrutiny, it has not gone unnoticed by the CCC. Allowing aviation emissions to grow beyond the level of the recommended cap would require a level of emissions reductions from other sectors so stringent that it that “can’t practically be done”, Lord Deben said today.

So what’s the Government’s plan? The deal agreed at the UN just last month to implement a mandatory carbon offsetting scheme for aviation, while worthwhile in a global context, won’t get the Government off the hook. The aviation emissions target should be met “without the use of international credits” CCC has said, since “these credits may not be available in the future and they may not be cheap”. Biofuels? Even if they can be produced sustainably, they’re likely to represent no more than 2.5% of aviation fuels by 2050, DfT has said.

The Government says it’s busy working on a strategy, together with the industry coalition ‘Sustainable Aviation’. With the Transport Secretary and facing re-examination next Wednesday by the Environmental Audit Committee on its plans for mitigating the climate change, air quality and noise impacts of Heathrow expansion it will be interesting to see what they can come up with.