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Airport carbon target risks greenwashing aviation emissions

25th April, 2023

The Government is currently consulting on proposals to introduce a target for airports to achieve zero emissions without offsetting by 2040. Sounds good, right? But there’s a catch and it’s quite a big one. The target doesn’t include the emissions from flights, despite these being responsible – according to the Government’s own consultants – for 95% of airports’ emissions. 

Decarbonising airports will not decarbonise flying

Including flights in the proposed target would essentially require a shut-down of the aviation industry. Technologies now exist that could deliver complete decarbonisation of airport buildings and of airport vehicles on the ground by 2040. For airlines, meanwhile, there are no zero emission aircraft yet in operation on commercial routes, and alternative fuel options all face limitations in terms of scalability and emissions mitigation. The Government’s plans for emissions from flying – as set out in the Jet Zero strategy – look very different, therefore, from the proposed airports target. Even under a “high ambition” (some would say “high risk”) scenario, the government anticipates emissions from the aviation sector of over 19 Mt CO2 per year by 2050, which would need to be balanced by way of carbon removals. 

The 2040 target as a means of securing public support for growth

What is the purpose, then, of the Department for Transport setting an ambitious climate target for airport operations, which other policies such as the phaseout of petrol and diesel vehicles, will go a long way towards delivering anyway? The consultation document itself offers an explanation, stating that “The zero-emissions airport target is not intended to hamper economic growth at airports, but to provide a social licence for growth.”

AEF, along with numerous green NGOs and, indeed, the Government’s own climate advisory body, the CCC, have been arguing that the scale of aviation growth currently been planned for is not compatible with climate targets. The Government takes a different view, insisting that aviation growth, including airport expansion, will boost UK productivity and help “level up” the UK. However, the view of the public is unclear. CAA research from 2020 found that “UK adults are more likely than ever before to say they think about the environmental impact when travelling by air”. And airport expansion in particular remains controversial, with community groups continuing to challenge plans for growth at Bristol, Manston, London City, Luton and – of course – Heathrow and Gatwick. 

A way forward

Setting ambitious targets for climate action, including actual rather than ‘net’ emissions cuts where possible, has to be a good thing. AEF won’t, therefore, be opposing the setting of a 2040 target for airports. But given the long history of many UK airports having misleadingly claimed ‘carbon neutral’ status on the basis of plans that don’t address flights it’s particularly important for the Government to avoid providing false reassurance for the public about plans for decarbonising flight. 

In our response to the consultation, we’ll therefore be arguing that the 2040 target for airport operations, if introduced, must be accompanied by a requirement for transparent reporting of the emissions associated with the flights from each of those airports, as suggested in the consultation. In reporting any progress towards meeting the target, airports should make clear the limits of its scope and should avoid references to becoming a ‘zero emission airport’ or similar. 

Greenwash in the aviation sector is already a significant problem. Government policy needs to avoid exacerbating this, and should instead build on the work being undertaken by the CAA to better inform the public about the CO2 from flights. 


The consultation on the Government’s target closed on the 2nd of May.

To read AEF’s full response to the consultation, see below: