On 27th February 2020, the Court of Appeal ruled that the Government’s plan to expand Heathrow Airport was unlawful because it had failed to take into account the Paris Agreement on climate change (which commits signatories, including almost all countries globally, to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees). This was a landmark ruling: the first ever to have the effect of blocking a large infrastructure project on the basis of its possible impact on achieving the Paris Agreement.
Many other UK airports meanwhile, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, had big plans for growth. Some had already submitted applications which were at various stages of the decison-making process, and others had future plans to increase capacity. The industry’s Sustainable Aviation roadmap, published in February 2020, weeks before the crisis brought flights to a halt, forecast that the combined growth plans of the UK’s airports will result in a 70% increase in passenger numbers on today’s level. This is nearly three times the 25% growth allowed for in the Committee on Climate Change’s net zero modelling.
Despite all the government consultations and policy reviews of recent years, very few effective environmental limits apply to the aviation sector, so airport expansion typically brings more noise and more emissions.
Unrestricted growth in aviation will outpace technological improvements in terms of both emissions and noise, if the industry resumes the growth trajectory forecast prior to the coronavirus pandemic. A moratorium on future airport expansion would be one of the more straightforward policy measures for the Government to put in place, as a first step towards bringing aviation’s environmental impacts to within acceptable levels.
Local councils, meanwhile, which are responsible for determining all but the largest airport planning applications, have historically not taken the climate change impacts of flights associated with airport expansion into account as this has been deemed a national and not a local issue. This can seem particularly at odds with local policy processes, however, in cases where local authorities have declared climate emergencies, or set themselves ambitious local CO2 targets, and applications for expansion at both Bristol and Stansted airports have been turned down on the basis, at least in part, of their impacts on climate change.
A moratorium on airport expansion plans should be introduced, and local councils should be encouraged to consider the impact of expansion on local climate change targets.