Aviation expansion: a choice for climate chaos

The aviation industry may have been hit hard by the ongoing pandemic, but long-term plans for expansion are unchanged, and still pose a threat to our climate. With the Heathrow third runway halted for the moment, regional airports are pushing hard to increase their capacity and profits.

Take action

Object to expansion at Leeds Bradford airport - deadline 11 August

Register and object to the proposal here or email planning@leeds.gov.uk quoting ref 20/02559/FU (include your full name and address).

Leeds Bradford Airport which wants to increase passenger numbers from 4 million per year now to 7.1 million by 2030 and up to 9 million by 2050. You don't have to live locally to object, and it's not necessary to comment in detail. You might wish to point out that approving this application would contradict the declaration of a climate emergency by Leeds City Council last year. More information is available here

Object to Southampton Airport expansion - deadline 10 August

Southampton Airport wants to extend the runway and increase the number of flights, allowing it to more than double passenger numbers. The council responsible is Eastleigh Borough Council in Hampshire.

You can formally object to the expansion (Eastleigh Council has also declared a climate emergency) and also email neighbouring Southampton City Council to ask them to continue opposing the planned expansion. 

Further information and links to take action


Heathrow appeal at the Supreme Court - 7-8th October

In a judgement with huge significance not just for aviation but for all infrastructure decisions, in 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.

Manston airport

A disused airport at Manston, Kent has been given permission by the Government to re-open as a highly-polluting cargo hub - against the advice the Examining Authority appointed by the Secretary of State. This board of planning inspectors reported that the airport would: “have a material impact on the ability of Government to meet its carbon reduction targets” and there was not sufficient need for it. Appeal to support Judicial Review

Local authorities rejecting airport expansion

Earlier in the year 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. 

Bailouts for workers, not polluting industries

Despite governments around the world claiming they want to support low-carbon industries in the wake of COVID-19, many have prioritised airlines and plane manufacturers for bailouts with no green strings attached — giving or lending money to some of the world’s biggest polluters. Read more

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.

Why aviation expansion is a climate disaster

Aviation is not just fossil fuel intensive, but extremely difficult to decarbonise (more on this below). It is a source of emissions that overwhelmingly comes from the richest in society. It is hard to find exact numbers, but estimations say that about 10%, or between 5 and 20%, of the global population has ever taken a flight. Figures for England have shown that just 1% take one-fifth of overseas flights, while the 10% most frequent flyers took more than half of flights abroad in 2018. 

Here in the UK, while other sectors are being expected to cut emissions, aviation to reach 'net zero' by 2050, aviation is largely being given a free pass. International aviation and shipping are officially excluded from the government's climate targets, and caps set by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), the UK’s statutory advisory body, are effectively ignored.

The CCC has stated that 'at most 25%' increase of passenger numbers in the aviation sector are permissible for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 - a generous estimate. 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%.

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.

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, with only 1.22 million passengers in 2017, but hoping for up to 7.2 million passengers. To find out about the plans for other airports, you can have a look here.

Some airports are 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. 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 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. 

Sustainable aviation growth?

The UK government's policy on aviation is heavily based on the concept of 'sustainable growth'. Sadly this is a myth. The aviation industry has promised carbon neutral growth by increasing the use of biofuels, carbon offsetting and technological interventions...

Why biofuels aren’t a silver bullet

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 deforestation 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. This has been used as an argument against regulating aviation growth at the domestic level because the emissions are 'best dealt with internationally'.

Unfortunately, CORSIA is a mess. It started off with huge loopholes and was then weakened even further by dropping sustainability criteria for biofuels and announcing that even fossil fuels could count as green. Offsetting has a poor record in general. A recent report found that 85% of the offset projects under the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism failed in the objective of reducing emissions

Even if CORSIA were strengthened somehow, a fundamental problem is that offsetting can only work while global emissions are reasonably high and so there are lots of opportunities to make carbon savings on top of countries' existing commitments. But if we are to have any chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change then carbon budgets will be tightened everywhere. The likelihood that claimed offsetting projects will be double counted or ineffective further increases. The UK Committee on Climate Change has thereforadvised against reliance on offsetting in place of domestic emissions cuts. 

Non-CO2 emissions: the elephant in the room

Flying not only emits CO2, but by emitting other gases and particles at altitude and forming contrails an additional contribution to the greenhouse effect and can double aviation's climate impact when compared to CO2 alone. Because these 'non-CO2 effects' are variable and hard to calculate exactly, they are almost always ignored in planning and policy decisions, meaning that the climate impact of aviation is significantly underestimated. The government's own guidelines for company reporting of CO2 emissions suggests as an approximation, multiplying aviation emissions by 1.9.

A full review on these effects can be found here. Since government policy, industry calculations and offset schemes consistently fail to take these impacts into account, even the most well-designed, reliable, offsetting scheme for aviation would leave the warming caused by non-CO2 effects unaccounted for - approximately the same amount of CO2 equivalent again.

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’.

This paper highlights that claims made by the aviation industry regarding achieving substantial carbon savings in the future are largely myths used to give favourable publicity to the industry.  Essentially, reliance on technological solutions, which will not be able to keep pace with passenger growth, as a figleaf to justify expansion.

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 opportunistic airport expansion, investing in alternative transport through a just transition to a low-carbon economy and implementing a fairer system of tax and incentives. The government must take control to manage demand for aviation and local councils must be brought to prioritise climate justice over capital gain. 

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