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Net zero airports? The problem with airport capacity growth

13th July, 2021

Bristol Airport recently announced that it will be net zero by 2030, a claim that was even hailed by aviation minister Robert Courts as “a huge achievement that will go a long way towards helping us achieve our own goals of net zero aviation”. Yet what the airport glosses over is that this commitment does not include emissions from flights, which can be anywhere up to 98% of an airport’s total emissions, and which will be much harder to decarbonise than airport buildings and surface access.

It is no coincidence that Bristol Airport has begun making this claim as it seeks to defend its plans to grow the number of flights it can operate. Heathrow has similarly argued in the past that a third runway would not compromise the UK’s carbon budgets because the emissions from the planes that would use the runway don’t count (although this can no longer be relied upon following the Government’s announcement that international aviation emissions will be included in the Sixth Carbon Budget).   

Bristol and Heathrow are not the only airports trying to put a green gloss on their plans for more flights. In its recent Progress Report to parliament, the government climate advisors, the CCC, note that while the committee has advised no net expansion of airport capacity given the need to limit aviation demand, “several UK airports are in the process of seeking planning permission to expand or have already sought permission to expand and are challenging planning permission rejections” (p185). 

As current expansion plans stand, AEF estimates that total aviation CO2 emissions will be almost double the level of 23 million tonnes CO2 assumed by the Government’s climate advisors to achieve net zero by 2050. And using an alternative calculation method, a recent report suggested that proposals to expand four airports could lead to an increase in emissions up to eight times higher than those claimed by the airports in question.

Many local campaign groups, including AXO Southampton and GALBA at Leeds Bradford Airport, whose airports’ planning applications were approved by their local councils, asked for these decisions to be ‘called in’ by Government to allow their climate impacts to be considered in a national context. In May, 55,000 people signed a petition asking for Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick to call in Leeds Bradford Airport’s application, and to put it to a public inquiry. The airport’s plans to expand are currently on hold whilst Jenrick considers the matter. At Southampton Airport, meanwhile, the Government missed the council’s deadline to intervene, and planning permission has since been issued. Following this, AXO Southampton announced that it was fundraising for judicial review of the decision.

Even in cases where a local councils have turned down planning applications on climate grounds, this is not necessarily the end of the story. Stansted Airport’s application was rejected by its local councillors for a host of environmental reasons, including climate change. This decision was later overturned by the Planning Inspectorate, who in May, approved the airport’s expansion plans after a public inquiry. The local council has since applied for court review of the airport’s expansion plans.

Currently, only certain expansion plans, deemed to be nationally significant, are considered automatically at a government level, as in the case of Manston Airport. The Examining Authority had recommended against the reopening of the airport as a freight hub, finding that ‘the airport will damage the local economy and impact negatively on the UK’s carbon budget and our commitments to the Paris Agreement’. Despite this recommendation, the Government gave permission for Manston Airport to reopen, but later admitted that it had not provided reasons for overturning the Examining Authority’s recommendation when a judicial review of the Government’s decision was successfully lodged. In February 2021, the High Court issued an order quashing the Government’s decision. The Government is now re-determining the application for Manston Airport. 

In the absence of any mechanism to consider an airport expansion’s contribution to cumulative aviation emissions, and the impacts this may have on the UK’s ability to meet legally binding climate commitments, AEF continues to push for a halt to all UK airport expansions. An uncoordinated and unplanned approach to airport expansion before any national strategy is in place will put the achievement of net zero in jeopardy, however many solar panels airports put on their rooves.