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Halt airport expansion, say Government’s climate advisors and AEF

28th June, 2023

There should be no further airport expansions in the UK until the Government has developed a ‘capacity management framework’ for aviation, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) has said today. 

CCC’s 2023 report to Parliament on progress in reducing UK emissions is highly critical of the Government’s lack of urgency on climate action and its failure to develop effective demand-side policies to cut emissions. A change of course on airport expansion is identified as one of a number of ‘priority recommendations’.  

Government relying on ‘nascent technology’

The CCC notes that since its previous recommendation of ‘no net expansion’ of airports, the Government has instead, by way of its Jet Zero Strategy, set out an approach that allows for 70% passenger growth compared to the level in 2018 and no airport capacity cap. The strategy is high-risk and too reliant on nascent technology, CCC argues. 

While the Government has modelled for high levels of uptake of alternative fuels for aviation, today’s report implies its approach is already faltering. The so-called ‘Sustainable Aviation Fuel’ (SAF) mandate process has been delayed, with the Government’s recent consultation admitting to large uncertainties about both international and domestic feedstock supply.

The CCC’s modelling assumes much lower levels of SAF uptake and a more modest increase in aircraft efficiency than the Government’s plans. While the CCC places significant reliance on greenhouse gas removal measures to offset aviation emissions, their approach also relies on reigning in demand for flying given the limits of how quickly innovation in new fuels and technologies can take place.

Importance of demand management

“Demand management is the most effective way of reducing aviation CO2 and non-CO2 emissions”, CCC argues, recommending that, “No airport expansions should proceed until a UK-wide capacity management framework is in place to annually assess and, if required, control sector CO2 emissions and non-CO2 effects. 

“Once a framework is in place, net airport capacity expansion should only take place if the carbon-intensity of the aviation sector is outperforming the Government’s aviation emissions trajectory and can accommodate the additional demand” the report advises.

Many UK airports are planning expansion and some, such as Bristol, have been granted permission to grow in recent years. Luton Airport has begun the process of applying to increase its capacity from 18 million passengers per annum to 32 million, Gatwick Airport is expected to launch expansion proposals imminently and the CEO of Heathrow has indicated that they will restart the process of applying for permission for a third runway later this year. 

The report out today specifies that all these existing and planned proposals need to come under scrutiny.

“A capacity-management framework would allow expansion decisions to be made in line with the aviation sector’s decarbonisation pathway and in collaboration with the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish Governments. This framework should consider existing and planned capacity proposals. Without a capacity-management framework, it must be assumed that any capacity increases at individual airports will lead to a permanently higher level of overall airport capacity.”

CCC Progress report, June 2023

AEF, along with other NGOs, strongly supports a moratorium on airport expansion as a first step towards policy that tackles emissions effectively.

Responding to the recommendation, Cait Hewitt, Policy Director at the Aviation Environment Federation said:

“This is the CCC’s strongest ever advice on airport expansion. But in fact they’ve been telling the Government for years to get a grip on aviation demand. Instead the official ‘strategy’ allows unlimited growth in flying in the hope that new technologies and fuels will save the day. 

“We can’t sit back and wait to see if these magic planes will appear on the market while building in expansions that will allow for more and more fossil-powered flying. The Government’s ‘jet zero’ plans are already falling apart; it’s recently had to admit that it has no idea how to get enough sustainable feedstock to meet its targets to make aircraft fuel out of wastes and we’ve yet to see any proposals for ramping up aircraft efficiency improvements. 

“The Government needs to stop giving in to the aviation industry’s insatiable demands for growth and recognise that in a climate emergency all sectors of the economy need to start doing things differently.”

Cait Hewitt, AEF Polict Director, June 2023

The UK is not the first country to be grappling with this issue. The expansion of Schiphol Airport in the Netherlands was recently shelved as a result of environmental concerns. The Dutch Government is considering introducing airport-level CO2 caps as a means of limiting aviation emissions.