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Challenging airport expansion

In 2019 the requirement for the UK to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 (with all emissions by that date needing to be balanced by greenhouse gas removals) became law. In April 2021, the Government announced it would accept the advice of its expert climate advisory body, the CCC, that the sixth carbon budget (covering years 2033-37) should deliver a 78% reduction in emissions below 1990 levels and, for the first time, should include international aviation and shipping emissions. 

The CCC Sixth Carbon Budget report of December 2020 also included advice and recommendations on the steps needed to put the aviation sector on a pathway to net zero, including limiting demand growth. Since the maximum level of passenger demand compatible with achieving net zero aviation emissions can already be accommodated with existing runways and terminal capacity, CCC argued, there should be no net increase in the UK’s airport capacity.

Heathrow, responsible for around half the total emissions of the UK aviation sector, won the latest stage of a legal battle over its expansion proposals in December last year, with the Supreme Court overturning an earlier ruling that the Government’s plan for a third runway at the airport was unlawful because it had failed to take into account the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Many other airports are meanwhile actively pursuing growth plans, and while smaller in scale, the cumulative effect of these proposals on climate change, would, if they were all approved, be significant.

Combined growth plans of UK 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.

The industry’s Sustainable Aviation roadmap, published in February 2020, weeks before the COVID-19 crisis brought flights to a halt, forecast that the combined growth plans of UK airports would 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. Our analysis shows that if all airport expansions are allowed to proceed it could result in an extra 9MtCO2 per annum by 2050 (Aviation emissions would be 36.9MtCO2 per annum in a scenario without expansion, compared to 45.77MtCO2 per annum in a scenario with expansion).

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. AEF, together with fifteen community groups, wrote to the Secretaries of State for Transport and Housing, Communities and Local Government in May 2021 recommending such a moratorium. You can read our letter here

Some local councils, meanwhile, are grappling with airport planning applications, in the context of declared climate emergencies, or ambitious local CO2 targets. Although the airports are appealing their respective decisions, applications for expansion at both Bristol and Stansted have been turned down by local authorities on the basis, at least in part, of their likely impacts on climate change.

Click here for an update on current airport expansions, as well as new and existing airport planning applications.

What do we want to see?

  • The Government should drop its support for Heathrow expansion, and should declare the Airports NPS to be invalid given the changes to climate change legislation since it was adopted in 2018.
  • A moratorium on all other airport expansion plans should be introduced (until and unless these can be shown to be compatible with the UK’s net zero plans).
  • Local and regional authorities should be both encouraged and empowered to consider the impact of airport expansion on local climate change targets.