Aviation expansion: a choice for climate chaos

Take action to prevent expansion at Leeds Bradford airport - deadline 15 June

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Save People Not Planes

Campaign against Climate Change is among over 250 organisations supporting the following open letter to national governments. You can support as an individual by signing the petition

In the middle of the ongoing Corona crisis, while the world struggles against the virus and countless workers are losing their incomes, the aviation industry is demanding huge and unconditional taxpayer-backed bailouts. Yet, in recent years, the industry strongly opposed any attempts to end its unfair tax exemptions and refused to contribute meaningfully to global emission reduction goals – which would require measures to significantly reduce the scale of aviation. Not only is aviation already responsible for 5-8% of global climate impact, mostly caused by a wealthy minority of frequent flyers, but the sector also assumes that it can continue growing. Enormous profits were made in the last decades, off the backs of low-paid workers and to the detriment of the climate.

Workers affected by the current crisis need support, but we shouldn’t let the aviation industry get away with privatising profit while the public pays for its losses. Without addressing the structural problems that have left our societies and economies so vulnerable to crises like this one, we will be even more vulnerable to the next ones as inequalities between and within countries continue to grow and the ecological and climate emergencies worsen. Bailouts must not allow the aviation sector to return to business as usual after Covid-19 has been defeated: any public money has to ensure that workers and the climate are put first.

1. People First

Instead of bailing-out executives and shareholders, any financial assistance should make sure that workers are supported with strong labour and health protections, and a real living basic income during the crisis is provided for flight attendants, pilots, ground-staff, caterers and other impacted workers.

2. A Just Transition: Towards Climate-Safe Mobility

A condition for public support must be that the aviation industry aligns with a 1.5 °C trajectory. The emission reductions must be absolute and not employ dubious accounting mechanisms, such as offsets, nor rely on biofuels that harm the environment, food security and land rights. Since “green flying” is an illusion, air travel must be reduced. For a just recovery, democratic decision-making and public ownership are decisive. Governments must support a just transition: system-wide changes to transport networks, ensuring access to affordable alternatives (such as rail travel) and enabling workers to move away from fossil-fuel dependent jobs and into decent climate jobs. 

3. No Taxes? No Bailouts!

It is not fair to save the aviation industry with taxpayers’ money if it pays almost no taxes, giving it an unfair advantage over lower emission modes of transport. Tax exemptions therefore must be stopped: airlines must be obliged to pay a tax on kerosene; and instead of Air Miles programmes which incentivise air travel, fair and progressive levies on frequent flying must be put in place.

It is important to use the current unintended pause in aviation for building a climate-safe transport sector and creating resilience for future crises.

Find out more about the Stay Grounded network


Heathrow third runway halted - but Heathrow granted leave to appeal: In a judgement with huge significance not just for aviation but for all infrastructure decisions, on 27th February 2020, Court of Appeal judges ruled the government's decision to permit the expansion of the UK's busiest airport was illegal because the Airports National Policy Statement ministers did not take into account the Paris Climate Change Agreement. Heathrow Airport has been granted leave to appeal the judgement in the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile Bristol Airport expansion was rejected by North Somerset Council after climate protests.

Stansted airport expansion plans were also rejected in January by members of the council's special planning committee. 

For more updates on aviation and how to get involved, have a look at AirportWatch (UK) and the global STAY GROUNDED network.

Why aviation expansion is a climate disaster

The aviation industry is pumping reckless volumes of CO2 into the atmosphere and airports are battering ahead unchecked with expansion plans, endangering the UK's climate commitments. And what is the government doing? Boris Johnson's government has provided 'further boosts to the aviation industry' by bailing out domestic airline Flybe with taxpayer money, is suggesting reduction of APD charges set to put people off flying and unveiled a bill in the Queen's Speech to increase the number of UK flights! Under the pretence of 'sustainable growth' the government is already off course to meet climate targets and apparently willing to step aside as the aviation industry commits environmental devastation.

For a sector already beyond any sensible carbon limit, growth can not be sustainable. Last year alone, aviation released almost 900 million tonnes of CO2 into the environment. If the aviation sector was a country, it would be the sixth biggest emitter in the world and it isn’t getting better- it is predicted that CO2 pollution will show a four-fold increase by 2050 and even that may be a massive underestimate.

Just in the UK airports emit a whopping 35 million tonnes of CO2, but instead of trying to reduce this environmental burden, airports across the country are drafting speedy expansion plans and the government plans for a 3rd runway at Heathrow. Expansion across the UK is progressing at triple the rate government climate change advisors say is sustainable, as airports scramble to make the biggest profits possible off the back of the environment.

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC), the UK’s statutory advisory body, has made it very clear that 'at most 25%' increase of passenger numbers in the aviation sector are permissible for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. And this target only gives us a 50% chance of staying within a 3°C temperature rise, double the necessary 1.5°C. A look at the 21 biggest airports in the country, however, paints an alarming picture – their current expansion plans would increase passenger numbers by 192 million passengers: a growth of 67%.

The expansion plans of Heathrow airport alone make up a quarter of this. The airport intends to increase passenger numbers by building a controversial third runway to accommodate an additional 50 million passengers - or 700 extra flights ever day. In a vote in 2018, MPs faced the clear choice between climate action or climate destruction. And MPs voted for the latter, 415 to 119 in favour. Labour MPs had a free vote and 119 of them voted for Heathrow expansion and climate meltdown. For information on the vote, and how your MP voted, here.

Some have plans already underway, like Edinburgh airport, which is working to transport an additional 6 million passengers a year and London City airport, which is aiming to boost numbers by 128%, to 11 million passengers by 2035.

Other planned expansions include Manchester airport with a 77% increase, to transport 50 million passengers, and Doncaster Sheffield, which as of now is on the smaller end of the list with 1.22 million passengers in 2017, but hopes balloon up by 490% to have up to 7.2 million passengers!

To find out about the plans for other airports, you can have a look here.

Some of this expansion is propagated by the government itself, as a number of airports is majority owned by local government. Manchester Airport Group owns Manchester, Stansted and East Midlands airports and is itself majority owned by 10 Manchester local councils (8 of them controlled by Labour Party). These councils control airports transporting around 60 million passengers a year and which aim to be responsible for a fifth of the passenger increase in UK aviation.

The (Labour-controlled) Welsh government has owned Cardiff Airport since 2013 (since then, passenger numbers have increased by 50%) and also subsidise regular flights and are planning to spend £80m on a new road allowing easier access to the airport.

There are more examples: Derry, Newquay and Luton are all owned by local councils. These councils are excusing their part in carbon emissions by citing economy growth as a priority, but is that really serving their constituents? Shouldn’t our continued ability to live safely on this planet trump financial gain?

To justify the viability of their cash-grab expansion plans at a time when the British public is more concerned with the climate than ever, the aviation industry has promised carbon neutral growth by increasing the use of biofuels, carbon offsetting and technological interventions.

Why biofuels aren’t viable

The industry has proposed Carbon Neutral Growth by 2020 with a ‘Green Jet Fuel’ plan, involving increasing the amount of biofuels in the aviation industry.

Unfortunately, despite widespread talk of biofuels being the saviour of the aviation industry, reliance biofuels would result in devastating environmental and social consequences. With a growing global population, there will be increased competition between agricultural land and land used to grow biofuel crops; this will have detrimental effects on food prices. Moreover, plans to accelerate the production of biofuels for the aviation industry will inevitably lead to the destruction of rainforests to make room for the vast amount of crops necessary, threatening habitats and biodiversity.

You can read more about the negative effects of biofuels here and here. Biofuels on this scale are in fact worse for the environment than jet fuel.

Why carbon offsetting won’t work

In 2016 the International Civil Aviation Organisation celebrated its agreement to implement a Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) beginning in 2020 and requiring any growth in aviation emissions from that year on to be ‘offset’ through the purchase of emissions units generated by CO2 cuts in other sectors. However, questions are raised over whether carbon offsetting offers an effective response to the global climate challenge or if it is merely a way of putting off difficult decisions?

The CCC has advised that market based measures such as emissions trading should be seen as only a short to medium term solution for tackling aviation emissions, instead, arguing that the sector should be preparing for significant cuts in its own emissions. Despite this, the Governments proposals for a 3rd runway at Heathrow would which will add around 700 more flights a day to the UKs aviation carbon footprint. Mentions of carbon offsetting through buidling 'carbon neutral' infrastructure on the third runway are paled into insiginifiacnce by the fact that 97% of emissions associated with flights are not accounted for. You can read more about why carbon offsetting won't solve Heathrow's climate change problem here.

 Additionally, a report by Carbon Brief highlighted that the new IACO deal only addresses CO2 emissions from aircraft, ignoring all other harmful emissions produced during the high altitude cruise phase of a journey, which collectively could result in warming perhaps double that of CO2 alone.

What about technological improvements?

The aviation industry has suggested that technological improvements will mitigate the potential climate impacts of an industry expansion. Some of these technologies include; alternative fuels, solar powered planes and new forms of aircraft.

However, none of these technologies are likely to make a significant contribution to the future of fuel efficiency. The CCC classifies all of these as speculative options, meaning they currently have very low levels of technology readiness and very high associated costs, so are unlikely for part of a large-scale solution. It states that ‘synthetic fuels may be technically possible but will be thermodynamically and economically challenging.’ and ‘a fully zero-carbon plane is not anticipated to be available by 2050. Plausible options for how aviation could become zero-carbon, even by mid-century, are lacking’.

paper written in Transportation Research Part D: Transport and the Environment entitled; 'Are technology myths stalling aviation climate policy', highlighted that claims made by the aviation industry regarding achieving substantial carbon savings in the future are 'myths' used to give favourable publicity to the industry.  Essentially, reliance on technological solutions in cutting emissions are propagating inaction by the industry and government. Realistically, any technological improvements will not be able to keep pace with passenger growth.

What does this mean for climate targets?      

Since 1990, progress in reducing carbon emissions in the UK has been imbalanced. While CO2 emissions by power and industry sectors have slowly declined, the emissions by the aviation sector have not, as summed up by this diagram produced by the 2019 CCC report.


Although it is an environmentally insufficient target, the UK government has promised to reduce carbon emissions to net-zero by 2050. Although shipping and aviation are not specifically mentioned, Theresa May made it clear that ‘This is a whole economy target…and we intend for it to apply to international aviation and shipping’. Aviation and shipping are also taken account of in the ‘carbon budgets’ set by the CCC. The CCC has made it very clear that a limit of 37.5Mt by 2050 for flights departing the UK (around a quarter of the UK's 2050 total emissions) is the maximum that can be accommodated. However, this is higher than aviation emissions were in 1990, meaning that the aviation sector is exempt from the same decarbonisation targets as other UK industries - these emissions must be made up for by greater reductions in other sectors.

Therefore, CCC report estimates 25% growth causing a maximum 31 million tonnes of CO2 emissions per year, if targets are to be reached. This amounts to around 350 million passengers in 2050, with about 0.1 tonnes of CO2 released per passenger.

However, as we know, airports are planning for far beyond 25% growth. If aviation growth is not curbed, the passenger numbers that airports are aiming for (445 million passengers), will easily release at least 40 million tonnes of CO2 per year instead, as calculated by Carbon Brief.


This falls several million tonnes above the absolute limit of 37.5 million tonnes, and (since technological and fuel advancements are highly speculative) cannot be combined with the current UK carbon target without some serious wishful thinking. The facts are, if current airport expansion continues, if we allow Heathrow to build a third runway, the UK cannot possibly hope to make its insufficient 2050 carbon-neutral promise. If the government is not willing to keep the aviation industry's irresponsibility in check, how can we hope to avoid environmental devastation? To build a future that is sustainable, that is safe and that does not endanger the security of livelihood, food and water for the poorest across the planet, these expansions can not be allowed to happen.

What needs to be done?

The growing carbon emissions of the aviation sector must be opposed not only by altering our behaviour to choose alternative forms of transport, but by preventing the insane expansion plans of airports. The government must stop the third runway curb airports’ ability to follow aggressive growth patterns and local councils must be brought to prioritise climate justice over capital gain. As we head into the last decade where meaningfull action can be achieved, it is time for the government to replace empty promises with concrete and drastic action. The simple fact is, if we do not demand change, aviation will leave our Climate Change Act in tatters and make a mockery of the UK ratifying the Paris climate deal.