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Stop airport expansions to help reach net zero emissions, say Government’s official climate advisors

9th December, 2020

There should be no increase in the UK’s airport capacity if emissions from flying are to be cut to net zero by 2050, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) tells Government today in its advice on the level of the sixth carbon budget. Any increase in capacity would need to be matched by restrictions at other airports to ensure no ‘net increase’, unless the industry can outperform the challenging decarbonisation pathway the report sets out.

The Government’s stated policy position is to support airport growth, though there were signs this may have been weakening even before the Covid crisis. Earlier this year, it chose not to challenge the court’s ruling that the policy underpinning Heathrow expansion was unlawful since it had failed to take into account the Paris Agreement on climate change. Despite the Covid pandemic having led to reductions of around 80% in aviation activity, and industry analysts predicting reduced demand until the mid-2020s, several UK airports are actively pursuing expansion plans in what looks like a last-ditch effort to secure approval before tougher climate measures are introduced[1].

The importance of aviation emissions must not be overlooked, says CCC

Historically aviation emissions have been ‘allowed for’ in the setting of the UK’s carbon budgets, by setting aside a proportion of emissions for the sector, but not formally including them. This has allowed emissions from flying to rise without any penalties to the industry, and 2018 (the latest year for which data is available) recorded the highest ever level of CO2 from aircraft using UK airports. This policy approach is not “sufficient”, CCC says today. Emissions from international aviation and shipping must be formally included in carbon budgets, it says, with measures put in place to ensure these emissions start to fall even as airlines recover from the pandemic.

As well as limits on airport capacity, the Government should: introduce measures to limit demand for flying such as taxation; support the development of lower carbon fuels for aviation that meet ‘strict sustainability standards’; fund research on how to address aviation’s non-CO2 impacts; and ensure any emissions from aviation in 2050 are balanced by carbon removals, CCC advises.

AEF Deputy Director Cait Hewitt said:

The CCC’s advice is clear: the Government needs to call time on airport expansion. Zero carbon aviation is currently an aspiration, not a reality, and while it’s right to pursue new technologies for cutting emissions, we can’t rely on these coming through fast enough to decarbonise the sector without also reducing aviation demand.
Our analysis shows that current and planned UK airport expansions could increase aviation CO2 emissions by nearly 9MtCO2 a year in 2050 compared to a situation with no expansion. 

The aviation sector has taken a huge hit from the Covid pandemic, but jobs per passenger had already been falling for many years. The Government now needs to sharpen its focus on how to build the zero carbon industries – and jobs – of the future.


Notes to editor:

[1] In addition to the Heathrow third runway plan, several airports (including those in the table below) have more modest plans to expand that would nevertheless require planning permission and infrastructure changes.