Aviation and climate change: No New Runways

A Heathrow third runway "would undermine our national [climate] targets and seriously damage the health of the local community.”

These are the words of Theresa May in 2008, welcoming the Climate Change Act.

Heathrow consultation now open:

Although Theresa May has now done a U turn and announced support for a third runway at Heathrow, the process is ongoing, with a National Policy Statement currently out for consultation.

You can respond to the consultation by emailing runwayconsultation@dft.gsi.gov.uk

The NPS is asking for views in three main areas:
  • is there a need for a new runway in London and the South East by 2030 and, if so where it should be?
  • the local impacts of a new runway.
  • the “conditions” Heathrow need to agree to before it gets permission for a new runway.

What you should know:

  • Aviation has a uniquely generous target under the Climate Change Act - it is not expected to cut its emissions, while the rest of the economy must make up the shortfall with extra cuts. By 2050, it would be using up a large proportion of the UK's emissions budget - over half if we are aiming for a reasonable chance of staying below 1.5C! But aviation emissions are set to overshoot this generous allowance even without a new runway. Find out more
  • And it's not as if there's any room for manoeuvre - in fact the opposite. The UK is currently off course, lacking policies to make about half emissions reductions needed under the Climate Change Act (which may itself underestimate the cuts needed). We're already in carbon debt with no credit card. Ws the world heats up, a new runway is simply unaffordable.
  • The UK does not even have a policy on the carbon emissions from aviation.  The Committee on Climate Change, in a statement in Nov 2015, said that government should publish an effective policy framework for aviation emissions by autumn 2016.  This has not happened.
  • The Commons Environmental Audit Committee chair said that the Government was guilty of 'magical thinking' on both climate and air pollution. Their emissions figures are based on a hypothetical international framework to reduce emissions which does not yet exist and even with this would leave international aviation emissions 15% higher than they should be - with other parts of the economy having to bear the impact or scrap our commitments. Full report
  • The Airports Commission said that a new runway could be compatible with the Climate Change Act - but only based on extremely optimistic assumptions and if the government raises ticket prices hugely to discourage people from flying. A likely scenario? We don't think so. Find out more
  • The cost to the public purse of the road and rail infrastructure will be colossal. TfL estimates the cost to the taxpayer of transport links to an expanded Heathrow would be £18.2 billion. Just think of the economic and social benefits if that kind of sum was invested in sustainable transport in the north of England (which gets just a sixth of the investment in transport infrastructure that London does)
  • Air pollution is already above legal limits in London, causing more illness than either obesity or alcohol use, around 10,000 deaths in the capital each year. A new runway would make this even worse.
  • And finally, the government is prepared to betray our climate commitments for... what exactly? There is no airport capacity crisis. Stansted's runway slots are half empty. The majority of flights are taken by frequent leisure flyers. It has been estimated that this 'jet set' of 15% of people in the UK take 70% of international flights. Only one in ten international flights by UK residents is now for business.
  • The 'economic case' for a new runway has been shown to have been wildly overstated. Industry lobbyists fail to mention that while the aviation sector is estimated to make a direct contribution of £18bn to the British economy it also enjoys an annual tax subsidy of around £11bn from VAT and fuel duty exemptions. Holidays and other travel results in £17bn more spent abroad by UK residents than is brought into this country by visitors.

Ultimately the central fact is quite simple: if a Heathrow third runway is allowed to go ahead it would leave our Climate Change Act in tatters and make a mockery of the UK ratifying the Paris climate deal.

Email your MP to voice your objection.

Also, watch this space for further actions at Heathrow - we expect mass civil disobedience actions and more.

In the words of climate scientist Professor Kevin Anderson:

"The UK Government's enthusiasm for more airport capacity alongside its clamour for high-carbon shale gas demonstrates a palpable disdain for the Paris Agreement. Both of these decisions will lock the UK into ongoing emissions of carbon dioxide for decades to come, putting short-term convenience and financial gain ahead of long-term and genuinely low-carbon prosperity. Such reckless disregard for the prospects of our own children and the well being of poor and climatically vulnerable communities arises from either a scientifically illiterate Government or one that cares nothing for its legacy. Whichever it may be, these are undesirable characteristics of a government facing the climate change and other strategic challenges of the twenty-first century."


The international aviation industry has got together and have agreed a deal to 'cut emissions' in Montreal. This deal would allow emissions to increase 300-700%, and depend on dubious carbon offsets to make up for this. The UK have joined 190 other countries doing the same thing. There are, in other words, loopholes so big you could fly a jumbo jet through. The planned deal would allow aviation to continue polluting and undermine the Paris agreement on climate change. 

Read more

More on aviation expansion in the UK

You don't have to be an environmental campaigner or technical expert to understand why Heathrow expansion in the face of climate change would be madness. Here's a good article by David Mitchell that sums it up.

George Monbiot explains that climate change means no airport expansion - at Heathrow or anywhere.

The Aviation Environment Federation has compiled 50 reasons why Britain doesn't need a new runway.


In 2010, David Cameron vowed "No ifs, no buts, no third runway". But with heavy lobbying from the aviation industry, he changed his mind, re-opening the question of a Heathrow third runway by setting up the Airports Commission - ensuring however, that its controversial report should come in safely after the election. 

The Airports Commission has recommended a new runway at Heathrow, the only major airport to be almost full to capacity but whose expansion would cause devastating local impacts, and face opposition from senior Conservatives as well as a broad coalition who successfully opposed a third runway proposal last time round.

Looking at the broader context, it is clear that the Commission, costing £20 million, was simply asking the wrong question: "Which airport to expand?", not "What part can aviation play in a low-carbon economy?"

The legally binding Climate Change Act requires the UK to limit national carbon emissions to about 160 million tonnes (Mt) per year by 2050 – an 80% reduction on 1990 levels. The government and the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), its statutory adviser, say that emissions from aviation should not take up more than a quarter of that figure – 37.5 Mt – by 2050.

Yet the Airport Commission predicts that aviation emissions will exceed this even without new runway capacity. Building a new runway in the South East of England - whether at Heathrow or Gatwick - will mean breaching the UK’s targets for aircraft carbon emissions unless aviation plans in all other regions are massively scaled back. If aviation blows its budget, other sectors, such as agriculture, would have to shoulder tougher carbon cuts than the CCC considers to be feasible.

The Airport Commission's claims that a new runway in the South East is could be compatible with carbon budgets BUT that's if the carbon price rises to £330 / tonne. To put that in context, British power plants currently pay around £23 / tonne for burning carbon.

Read more on aviation and emissions targets.

The Airports Commission has stated that the new runway will keep to the emissions target. However, the reasoning behind that is questionable, since it depends on a high carbon price driving prices up across the country to deter people from flying - hardly a likely policy to be implemented. Read more here

What might a sensible alternative policy look like? A proposal to curb aviation growth without making flying the preserve of the rich was recently put forward by a coalition including the Campaign for Better Transport, the New Economics Foundation, the Tax Justice Network, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. It would change the taxation around aviation to discourage ‘frequent flyers’ while cutting taxes for those who fly less frequently. The plan would see air passenger duty scrapped and replaced by a new frequent flyers levy. Everyone would be able to take one flight a year without paying any levy, but for subsequent journeys the levy would rise each time.

Find out more

Latest aviation news from AirportWatch

Why climate change should rule out any new runways in the UK Aviation Environment Federation, Feb 2013

New aviation emissions deal would cheat the climate Campaign against Climate Change blog, September 2016