Aviation expansion: a choice for climate chaos
Heathrow Expansion Vote
MPs faced a significant vote: whether to increase aviation emissions by building a new runway at Heathrow. It was a clear choice between climate action or climate destruction. And MPs voted for the latter, 415 to 119 in favour.
If the aviation sector was a country it would be 7th in a world ranking of CO2 emitters.
Aviation emissions proved too contentious to be dealt with under the Kyoto Protocol (1997) and the European Union’s efforts to bring international, non-European aviation emissions into the EU Emissions Trading Scheme were blocked by the industry. Therefore, in a sense, the aviation industry has been given its own free pass to expand.
Sadly, it is predicted that CO2 pollution from the global aviation sector will show a four-fold increase by 2050. Adding to this could potentially be the UK Government's plans for a 3rd runway at Heathrow Airport. To reign this back, the aviation industry has promised carbon neutral growth by increasing the use of biofuels, carbon offsetting and technological imporvements.
Why Biofuels are not 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 UK’s statutory advisory body, the Committee on Climate Change (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, therefore resulting in an overall increase in carbon emissions if the aviation industry is allowed to expand. A 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.
Aviation in the UK
The UK is legally bound through the Climate Change Act (2008) to reduce CO2 levels by 80% from 1990 levels by 2050. To ensure this occurs, the government takes advice from the Committee on Climate Change. While international aviation and shipping are not formally included in the Climate Change Act, they are taken account of in the 'carbon budgets' the CCC sets. 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 in order to avoid breaking away from the conditions of the Climate Change Act. 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.
When considering Heathrow's expansion the government has presented no answers on how the scheme can be compatible with the Country’s Emissions reduction targets, despite a court ruling in 2010, the last time a third runway was on the table, that the government’s suggestion that airport expansion was somehow divorced from climate law was “untenable in law and common sense” and that it must review its plans.
While CORSIA was at one level ground-breaking – it signalled a global acceptance that aviation emissions are a problem and that policy action is needed to tackle it – critical questions about what role aviation should play in a zero carbon future remain, for the most part, even to be asked let alone answered.
Despite most sectors in the UK joining the effort to decarbonise over the coming decades, aircraft will remain dependent on fossil fuels for the foreseeable future.
UK 'Aviation Strategy' - a recipe for aviation growth, not climate action
Ultimately, the Government's Aviation Strategy highlights support for growth and expansion. Transport Secretary Mr Grayling recently said “a thriving aviation sector will be central to our future prosperity as we leave the European Union".
Heathrow is the UK's biggest single source of carbon and responsible for the highest level of emissions of any airport globally for international passenger flights. However, the only way a Heathrow expansion could be compatible with the Climate Change Act (2008) is by restricting growth elsewhere in the sector e.g. increasing tax on tickets or imposing planning constraints on regional airports, therefore indirectly posing a threat to the domestic aviation industry outside of southeast England.
The Next Steps
The draft National Policy Statement (NPS) makes no mention about future aviation emissions resulting from a Heathrow Expansion. The consultation on the Aviation Strategy highlighted that the Government will not consider its aviation emissions policy until later on in 2018, which is likely to be after the Heathrow NPS has been voted through parliament. There is a need for the Government to demonstrate an effective climate change policy for aviation, indicating how it will comply with the UK's emissions reductions targets. The proposed policy must be made available for public and expert scrutiny.
If you are interested in helping, you can contact your local MP about this issue here and ask them to question how the government plans to keep aviation expantion in line with climate change targets before a vote is taken on the Heathrow NPS.
Heathrow through the Looking Glass
The government's claim that Heathrow expansion is compatible with our climate targets really is a fairytale.
"The government had taken a back to front decision to expand Heathrow"
First David Cameron reneged on his 'No ifs, no buts, no third runway' pledge and set up the Airports Commission to assess the alleged need for new aviation capacity in the south east (and in particular to judge between profit-hungry Heathrow and Gatwick airports, both eager to expand). Then, following the Airports Commission plumping for Heathrow, Theresa May put aside her own previous statements against Heathrow expansion and opposition even within her own cabinet, and decided that appearing 'open for business' post Brexit was more important than any other considerations.
"While all other sections of the economy are supposed to cut emissions, aviation is allowed to grow"
The UK is legally bound through its Climate Change Act 2008 to reduce CO2 levels by 80% from 1990 levels by 2050. To ensure this occurs, the government takes advice from the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), an independent, statutory body.
While international aviation and shipping are not formally included in the Act, they are taken account of in the 'carbon budgets' the CCC sets. 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 that is compatible with the Climate Change Act. This is higher than aviation emissions were in 1990.
“Mind you, the government predicts we’ll go over that limit even without expanding Heathrow.”
The Department for Transport have predicted aviation emissions to reach 47Mt by 2050
"But… we know we’re not doing enough to stop climate change!” said Alice
The UK is currently off course to meet carbon emissions targets from 2030 onwards. The Committee on Climate Change found that under current policies we are on track to make about half the emissions reductions needed under the Climate Change Act. We're already in carbon debt with no credit card, so there is no room to take account of extra emissions from aviation.
“But the Airports Commission say we can expand Heathrow and keep within the limit”
Still with us? This is where it gets weird. The Airports Commission suggested two 'scenarios'. The first is keeping to the limit of 37.5Mt, the 'carbon capped scenario'. However much 'technical improvements' are assumed, ultimately passenger numbers need to be brought down. If you have to increase the carbon price so much that it puts people off flying then that will be across the country, not just in the south east. This means more passenger flights in London but fewer in other parts of the country, further skewing the UK's economy to the south east. And also restricting mainly those on lower incomes.
How much would prices have to rise by? This depends on how much technical improvements can make flying more carbon-efficient (if there is a big improvement in efficiency, more flights are possible within the limit), and what the underlying demand is (how many flights there would be if there was no carbon price to restrict demand).
On both of these issues, the Airports Commission seems optimistic. This is particularly true about future efficiency improvements, where assumptions are made which are not widely accepted. There are huge problems with biofuels, for example, as a means of reducing emissions, because the land use changes involved in growing them carry increased emissions.
So what this would mean for ticket prices is not clear, but if the optimism about future technology is not correct, a family of four could have to pay an extra £435 return from Manchester to Tenerife or £363 London to Athens to keep within the limits.
As the government announced its support for a new runway at Heathrow, the Department for Transport released a technical paper which described the 'carbon capped scenario' (restricting aviation emissions to a level consistent with our legal obligations under the Climate Change Act) as ‘unrealistic in future policy terms'. In other words, it can't be done if a third runway is built at Heathrow.
The paper then continued to describe the impacts of a third runway assuming the other scenario... carbon trading.
“Oh, the other plan is to ignore the limits and let aviation emissions grow and say companies can pay for carbon cuts elsewhere to make up for it.”
In the 'carbon traded scenario' aviation emissions would be allowed to grow above the limit recommended by the Committee on Climate Change to meet our legal obligations under the Climate Change Act, with companies offsetting their emissions by buying carbon credits elsewhere.
Offsetting has a dubious record. A recent report found that 85% of the offset projects under the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism failed in the objective of reducing emissions. It is very difficult to prove that any project actually reduced emissions compared to what would have happened anyway. It is also not a system that fits well when the goal is to dramatically reduce global emissions - we need to cut emissions from flying AND reduce emissions from deforestation, not trade one off against the other.
The international aviation industry has recently come up with a deal where aviation emits increasing amounts of CO2 but, on a voluntary basis to start with, participating countries pay for offsets. This weak arrangement is in no way a get out of jail free card for claiming that Heathrow expansion is compatible with our climate commitments.
There's more detail in the new WWF report 'Grounded: Ten reasons why international offsetting won't solve Heathrow's climate change problem'
Comments by Mary Creagh, chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, have emphasised the frustration with the government refusing to show its working on climate change, using terms like 'magical thinking' and 'fantasy'. The committee's formal report is more restrained but the summary is worth reading:
There has been no clarity from the Government on carbon emissions. The Government’s headline cost-benefit analysis for Heathrow expansion is based on a hypothetical international framework to reduce emissions which would leave international aviation emissions 15% higher than the level assumed in the Fifth Carbon Budget (2028–2033).
The Government has said Heathrow “can” be delivered within emissions limits but it hasn’t decided or stated what these limits are. It is considering rejecting the Committee on Climate Change’s advice on the limits that should be adhered to and the level of passenger demand which is compatible with those limits. The Government’s revised aviation strategy must set out its approach to reducing emissions, the target it will work to and the measures it will take to close the policy gap between where we currently are and where we will need to be in each carbon budget period to 2050. If the Government does reject the Committee on Climate Change’s advice on aviation emissions it should set out clearly the resulting additional emissions reduction requirements on other sectors of the economy and the resulting costs to those sectors. These assumptions should be tested with industry and subjected to independent scrutiny by the Committee on Climate Change.
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.
But you might also want to mention:
- 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.
The Aviation Environment Federation has compiled 50 reasons why Britain doesn't need a new runway.
George Monbiot explains here that climate change means no airport expansion - at Heathrow or anywhere.
Even Theresa May agreed, before she became Prime Minister.
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.