Airport expansion plans show that national and local decisions are at odds on climate

This post is by Agathe de Canson and Jo Furtado, policy advisers at Green Alliance.

Last week, the French government scrapped plans to expand its largest airport, Roissy Charles de Gaulle, citing environmental concerns. A few days later, Leeds City Council voted to expand Leeds Bradford Airport.  

Aviation emissions accounted for seven per cent of UK greenhouse gas emissions in 2018, but this figure will inevitably grow if demand increases, making it harder still to limit the emissions of a sector that has no straightforward way to decarbonise. Airport expansion, like road expansion, increases demand, so will make it much harder to reach our climate goals. 

The contrast between these two airport decisions shows that a better approach to infrastructure planning is needed in the UK, so national and local decisions are aligned towards meeting climate targets. 

The French government has scrapped a major airport expansion project  
Roissy is France’s largest airport, with over 76 million passengers in 2019. That year, it accounted for more than half of the country’s aviation emissions, which made up 6.4 per cent of France’s total CO2 emissions. 

The now aborted plan for a new terminal would have added 40 million passengers a year by 2037, a 50 per cent increase in traffic compared to current levels. The associated jump in carbon emissions it would have caused was incompatible with France’s climate targets

French ecology minister Barabara Pompili has now declared the project “obsolete”, stating that it “no longer corresponded to the government’s environmental policy”. The stark fall in passengers due to Covid-19 had also raised doubts about the project. The French government is a majority shareholder of the airport group that owns Roissy, essentially giving it a veto over the expansion plans.    

UK airport expansion plans contradict its climate commitments 
In contrast, Leeds City Council’s decision to green light plans for a new terminal will see annual passengers rise by three million in 2030, generating more emissions than will be permitted for the whole of Leeds in 2030 under the council’s own carbon reduction targets.  

The Leeds Bradford Airport project is just one of many airport expansion plans in the UK: Stansted, Luton, Gatwick and Southampton airports all have planning applications in the pipeline. Heathrow could also still expand, as the ruling stating that plans for a third runway were unlawful on climate change grounds were recently overturned

These projects will make UK climate targets hard, if not impossible, to achieve. Until genuinely low carbon aviation technologies have been proven at scale, reducing demand for aviation is the best way to reduce emissions from the sector. The Climate Change Committee, which provides impartial advice to the government, has said there should be no net expansion of airports.  

The committee also says that, compared to 2019 figures, passenger numbers should rise by no more than 68 million in 2050. Heathrow’s new terminal could grow passengers by 55 million, and plans to expand Gatwick, Stansted and Luton could increase the number by a further 58 million. Together, these plans blow the committee’s cap, based on what’s needed to meet climate targets, by a long way.   

Local and national decision making on infrastructure must work hand in hand 
Despite national ambitions to reach net zero emissions by 2050 and the majority of local authorities having made climate pledges, climate is frequently not a factor in local and national infrastructure decisions. This tension is becoming increasingly clear this year, with legal battles around airport expansion plans and the proposal for a new coal mine in Cumbria.

Unlike the Roissy Airport case, infrastructure decisions in the UK are mostly made locally, although ministers can intervene if required. Our research shows that lack of clarity in the way responsibilities are divided up between councils and central government makes it hard to draw a line around the emissions within a council’s control and, therefore, which emissions they are responsible for mitigating. 

Local decision making is driven primarily by local growth and employment opportunities. Councillors who approved the Leeds Bradford Airport expansion quoted the airport company’s own dubious figures that the project would create 12,000 new jobs, and maintained that, if it didn’t expand, other airports would simply pick up the additional demand. 

One solution is for the government to align its national policy statements, used to guide planning, with its net zero target, to compel local authorities to factor climate change into their infrastructure decisions. 

Investment in low carbon industries and transport are also much needed to boost green jobs across the country. The government must make this a priority in its upcoming budget and transport decarbonisation plan. Otherwise, local authorities will continue to fall back on high carbon infrastructure projects to guarantee jobs for their communities. But, as the world changes fast in response to the climate emergency, these decisions risk being short term and unsustainable. 

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