THE CLIMATE IMPACT of four planned regional airport expansions will be between two and eight times higher than their proponents claim, according to research from the New Economics Foundation (NEF).

The report finds that these four schemes are likely to account for an increase in annual airport-level emissions of up to 3.7 million tonnes of CO2 and CO2-equivalent emissions in 2035, the year of the government’s new climate target. This is equivalent to putting around 1.8 million additional cars on Britain’s roads.

The report finds that applications to expand Bristol, Leeds Bradford, Southampton and Stansted airports have ignored up to £13.4 billion worth of combined potential damage to the climate. This damage comes through emission at high altitude of pollutants such as carbon dioxide, aerosols, nitrogen oxides, and water vapour. The majority of this cost will fall on the shoulders of wider society, either as social damage from climate breakdown or in the cost of other parts of the country having to accelerate their emissions reductions in order to meet the UK’s climate targets.

The report finds that the four airports have not provided credible estimates to decision makers of how their expansion schemes will affect the climate crisis and the cost of this impact. As a result these airports have overstated the economic case for expansion and understated how much harm they will cause. NEF analysis has found that around 65 per cent of these emissions costs will not be recouped by current regulations on the aviation sector such as the UK’s new Emissions Trading System.

Four airports have applied to expand via the local planning process: Leeds Bradford and Southampton have had their applications approved, and Bristol and Stansted are at the inquiry stage following initial refusals from their local councils. In addition, Gatwick, Heathrow and Luton airports are also applying to expand via a government approval process.

The report recommends that, in the light of a lack of credible information in these airport expansion applications, the government should halt all active applications. It argues that any decisions on airport expansion should take into account the upcoming government aviation decarbonisation strategy, the government’s new target to cut emissions 78 per cent by 2035, and the Committee on Climate Change’s recommendation for no net expansion in UK airports. In addition, the Department for Transport should make sure that any future airport expansion applications, including larger expansions at Gatwick, Luton and Heathrow, take into account the impact of non-CO2 emissions and the monetised cost of damage to the climate.

The report finds that the four airports’ estimates of their climate impact are not credible because:

  • All four schemes assume that the aviation sector will be using currently undeveloped technologies to deliver rapid fuel-efficiency savings over the next few decades. Two of the schemes (Southampton and Leeds Bradford) do not even consider the possibility that these fuels and technologies may not be widely available, even though this would significantly increase the climate impact of the expansions.
  • Three of the four airports (Bristol, Leeds Bradford and Stansted) do not account for the impact of non-CO2 emissions such as aerosols, water vapour and nitrogen oxides, which can double or even triple the climate impact of airport expansions.
  • Three of the four airports (Bristol, Leeds Bradford and Stansted) do not look at how more flights coming into the airport as a result of expansion will affect its climate impact.
  • Three of the four airports (Leeds Bradford, Southampton and Stansted) have not put a monetary value on the climate impacts of expansion. As a result, these airports have not tested the potential impact of higher carbon prices in the future, and in failing to do so, have not adhered to the government’s own guidance.

Alex Chapman, researcher at the New Economics Foundation, said: The number of people flying in the UK has collapsed over the last year because of pandemic travel restrictions, and these numbers are not expected to recover until 2024 at the earliest. Despite this, seven UK airports are applying to get even bigger, and yet more airports are expected to submit new applications in the next few years.

“Last month the government set a new legal target to slash the UK’s emissions by 78 per cent by 2035, for the first time including our international aviation emissions. Against this backdrop, we can’t allow airport expansion schemes to play down their impact on the climate crisis. Our report raises concerns about the quality of the information decision makers were provided with when considering expansion applications.

“The Secretary of State should step in and conduct an independent review of all of these proposals and their compatibility with the UK’s climate targets.”

* Read Turbulence Expected: The climate cost of airport expansion here.

* Source: New Economics Foundation