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Airport expansion and UK climate policy: a mess that needs urgent attention

This post is by Nick Hodgkinson of the Group for Action on Leeds Bradford Airport.

“The cumulative scientific evidence is unequivocal: climate change is a threat to human well-being and planetary health. Any further delay in concerted anticipatory global action on adaptation and mitigation will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable future for all.” So says the IPCC report published on 28 February 2022. Yet, airports around the UK, and their greenhouse gas emissions, are being allowed to expand. Why?

In January 2020, the owners of Leeds Bradford Airport submitted a planning application to Leeds City Council seeking permission for changes that would allow them to increase the airport’s passenger numbers by 75 per cent, from four million to seven million per year. The airport claimed this would mean 1,500 new jobs. It would also mean 16,000 more flights annually and – depending on how you calculate them – the airport’s greenhouse gas emissions would more or less double by 2030.

“There is no room for airport expansions”
The IPCC has warned that by 2030 all emissions must be halved to retain a chance of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5oC and securing “a liveable future”. The UK is currently off track to meet its fourth and fifth carbon budgets which set targets for emissions reductions. This means, in the words of Climate Change Committee’s (CCC’s) chair Lord Deben, “there is no room for airport expansions”. But on 11 February 2021, fourteen Leeds planning committee councillors approved the Leeds Bradford Airport expansion by nine votes to five, less than two years after Leeds City Council had declared a climate emergency. The Leeds local planning committee, like others around the country, took the view that curbing aviation emissions is a matter for national government, while reaping the alleged economic benefits of airport expansion is a matter for local government.

It’s reasonable to say that national planning policy guidance for local councils about climate change and aviation is out of date and contradictory. For example, Leeds Bradford Airport argued that the 2018 ‘Making best use of existing runways’ policy overrides the UK’s legally binding 2019 target to reach net zero by 2050. This was accepted by the planning committee. The ‘headroom’ allowance for international aviation emissions in the Climate Change Act also gave councillors the opportunity to decide that, because those emissions were not expressly included in UK carbon budgets, they could be left out of consideration completely in their decision making.

The government’s Jet Zero strategy is due
There have been important developments in both policy and science since the Leeds planning committee decision last February. Aviation emissions are now formally included in the UK’s sixth carbon budget; the CCC has recommended there should be no net expansion of UK airport capacity; government ‘carbon values’ (the monetised cost of emissions) have tripled; and the IPCC has published two new reports, stressing the increasingly urgent need to reduce emissions. Later this year, following a second consultation process, the government’s Jet Zero strategy will be published. New Department for Transport aviation demand forecasts are also expected later this year which will (hopefully) use the updated ‘carbon values’ to give a more realistic indication of the climate cost of flying.

So the policy landscape is changing but it’s hard to see how UK aviation policy will be more aligned with the country’s commitment to the Paris Agreement by the summer if the government continues to allow airports to expand and refuses to tax flying fairly.

There will be no major technological solutions soon
According to the CCC: “Aviation is likely to be the largest emitting sector in the UK by 2050, even with strong progress on technology and limiting demand”. Strong progress on technology, eg sustainable aviation fuels, would be welcome but there is almost no prospect of major breakthroughs at a commercial scale within the next two decades. So demand limitation is the only immediate policy lever available to prevent  aviation emissions growing. Will the government change its mind and stop airports expanding? Will it introduce a frequent flyer levy or other types of tax to discourage flying?

The UK aviation industry thinks not. It expects to increase passenger numbers by over 60 per cent by 2050 and several airports are actively planning to expand: Heathrow, Stansted, Gatwick, Luton, Bristol, Southampton, Liverpool and London City. The New Economics Foundation has calculated that expanding just four of these airports would mean an increase in annual emissions of up to 3.7 million tonnes in 2035, the year of the government’s 75 per cent emissions reduction target.

It seems absurd that the combined impact of all these expansions on the UK’s emissions reduction targets is not being assessed, either by local or national government. There’s an urgent need for a cumulative climate impact assessment of the UK’s growing airport capacity.

Finally, did you notice that Leeds Bradford Airport is not in the list of expanding airports above? That’s because its owners withdrew their planning application in March 2022 rather than face a public inquiry. The Group for Action on Leeds Bradford Airport was formed to stop the airport expanding and, after two years of campaigning, we have succeeded. But we’re keeping a close eye on developments. We are also backing the Bristol Airport Action Network, whose legal challenge against Bristol Airport expansion is imminent. Their challenge is an opportunity to bring some much needed clarity to the mess that is UK climate and aviation policy. Watch this space…

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Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.

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