Aviation expansion: a choice for climate chaos

News:  27th February 2020 - momentous news! Judges ruled the government's decision to permit the expansion of the UK's busiest airport was illegal because ministers did not take into account the impact on the country's commitment to tackle global warming.  The airport may challenge the decision, but the government seems likely to accept the ruling.

 Bristol Airport expansion has been rejected after climate protests, which is a huge success! Read here for more information.

This great mobilising achievement comes after the Stansted airport  expansion plans were rejected in January by members of the council's special planning committee. The scheme was rejected by 10 votes which means a significant concern towards climate change action.

The aviation industry is pumping reckless volumes of CO2 into the atmosphere and airports are battering ahead unchecked with manic expansion plans, endangering any climate commitments the UK is making. 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 more information on aviation and how to get involved, have a look at Airport Watch and the global STAY GROUNDED network, which both connect environmental groups and campaign for aviation opposition. For anyone in the area, there will be a march in Bristol on the 31.01.2020 to protest the expansion of the local airport, link here.

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 a scary picture – their current expansion plans would increase passenger numbers by 192 million passengers. That is 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. 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.

And the government of Boris Johnson, who vowed he would  'lie down [...] in front of the bulldozers' to stop the Heathrow expansion, is allowing Heathrow to go through with these plans. Although protests and action against the third runway are ongoing, the high court ruled the construction of the runway to be lawful last May. Heathrow seems ready for full steam ahead, but for sake of the environment it is clear that this cannot be allowed to happen.

If the runway is built, it would swallow up 18 of the 25% allowed for by the CCC for sustainable growth, making it highly unlikely that the UK could reach net zero by 2050, much less 2030.

Other UK airports make up the other three quarters of aviation expansion in the UK. All of them plan to increase aviation pollution.

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? As Lord Deben, chairman of the CCC said: ‘The idea that something is good for the economy only stands up if the economy itself is properly protected.’

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 the 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 environmetally insufficient target, the UK government has promised to reduce carbon emissions to net-zero relative to 1990 levels 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.