UK parliamentary committee opens inquiry into environmental implications of runway expansion

UK parliamentary committee opens inquiry into environmental implications of runway expansion | AEF,Airports Commission,Committee on Climate Change,Environmental Audit Committee

Thu 27 Aug 2015 – As the UK Government deliberates the 340-page report submitted by its own appointed Airports Commission and the recommendation for allowing Heathrow Airport to build a new third runway, the House of Commons’ Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has launched an inquiry into the carbon, air quality and noise implications of airport expansion. The committee has invited submissions – which are required by September 3 – on whether the policies and mitigations proposed by the Commission are realistic and achievable, and what consequences they have for Government policy. NGOs such as the Aviation Environment Federation remain fiercely opposed to a new runway around London and have questioned the Commission’s justification that expansion can be achieved within UK aviation carbon emission targets.


The cross-party EAC has a number of members who are actively opposed to Heathrow expansion, such as Green Party MP Sarah Lucas and Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith, whose constituency is under the Heathrow flightpath and has threatened to resign his seat if a new runway is given the go-ahead.


The committee will seek to determine:

  • Whether the indicative policies and proposed mitigations set out in the Commission’s recommended option are realistic and achievable;
  • What the implications of adopting those policies and mitigations are for wider Government policy;
  • Whether realistic and achievable alternatives to those policies and mitigations exist, should the Government adopt the recommended option; and
  • What steps the Government should take in these areas to reach its decision in a way that is consistent with its commitments on sustainable development.


“Environmental concerns are a key part of the debate on airport expansion. Critics of airport expansion have raised concerns about whether it is possible to expand airport capacity in the South East while meeting the UK’s binding commitments on air pollution and climate change,” said EAC Chair, Huw Irranca-Davies MP. “We will be examining the Commission’s assessment of these issues in order to inform the debate about the future of aviation in the South East.”


While noise and local air quality noise issues have surrounded the national debate on airport expansion, less attention has been paid as to whether a predicted substantial increase in air traffic can be accommodated under UK climate change commitments. As recommended by the Government’s own advisors, the Committee on Climate Change, aviation carbon emissions should not exceed 2005 levels – 37.5 million tonnes – by 2050.


In its report, the Commission set out potential policies that could be adopted to both meet the target and allow expansion, which have now been challenged through an analysis by the Aviation Environment Federation (AEF).


AEF firstly questions the Commission’s own aviation CO2 emissions forecast for 2050 that, it says, is 15% lower than the Department for Transport’s (DfT) own projections. The Commission defends its forecast on the grounds that it expects a higher improvement in aircraft fuel efficiency as a result of an increase in the proportion of demand served by larger aircraft and through better matching of aircraft to route flown. As most of the additional flights are likely to be long-haul, larger aircraft can deliver more seat-kilometres per tonne of fuel burnt, it argues.


“For the Government to accept the Commission’s forecasts, it will need to explain why its own predictions in 2013 in terms of future aircraft mix and the proportion of larger aircraft were so wrong,” comments AEF. “Otherwise, the Commission’s estimates of the cost of achieving carbon limits – already barely credible – will need to be revised upwards.”


To maintain the emissions cap over the long term, the Commission has proposed a number of policy measures that can be adopted by Government and operational measures that industry should employ. It suggests the carbon price of £196 ($300) currently predicted for 2050 should be increased to £334 ($500), which its modelling shows can reduce anticipated aviation emissions by 2.3 MtCO2. However, points out AEF, the report contains no explanation on how this might be achieved under an international carbon market regime.


A further 2.3 MtCO2 could be saved by increasing the uptake of biofuel from the 2.5% share of aviation fuel by 2050, as anticipated by the DfT, to 5.6%, says the Commission. This would require policy intervention by the Government and public investment and subsidy in biofuel demonstration plants, although AEF questions Government appetite for action on this and the availability of public funds and private investment. The Commission further proposes the introduction of mandatory biofuel usage by airlines, but AEF believes this would be strongly resisted by the sector given the extra costs that would entail.


Operational measures such as enforcing lower cruising speeds, lower-carbon powering of airfield taxiing by aircraft and reductions in contingency fuel carried by airlines for safety reasons are estimated by the Commission to realise a further 1.2 Mt of emissions savings, bringing the total level down to the 37.5 Mt carbon cap. Given the industry’s strong commercial interest in reducing fuel costs, AEF believes these measures, if they are not already being implemented, would be employed if feasible.


AEF also takes the Commission to task for exaggerating the economic benefits of a new Heathrow runway and argues environmental and carbon costs have not been adequately factored in.


“Despite its reforecasting of aviation emissions, the Commission has failed to present a credible case for how, in the real world, emissions from aviation can be limited to a level consistent with UK climate policy if a new runway is built. It’s now for the Government to admit that building a new runway makes neither economic nor environmental sense,” concludes AEF’s appraisal.


The case for a new third runway at Heathrow has also failed so far to find backing from the airport’s main airline customer, British Airways, which is concerned airlines will be forced to pay higher fees to cover expansion costs. “We think the costs associated with the third runway are outrageous and certainly from an IAG point of view we will not be supporting it and we will not be paying for it,” said Willie Walsh, Chief Executive of BA’s parent company, IAG.


Speaking at last month’s Runways UK conference, IATA Director General Tony Tyler praised the Commission’s report and said IATA members supported Heathrow expansion, although “pre-funding the construction is not an acceptable option for airlines.”


He expressed confidence that the environmental challenges posed could be solved. “We understand and appreciate the environmental concerns which are discussed thoroughly in the Commission’s report, and questions remain on how it will be funded,” he told delegates. “But there are abundant global standards and best practices that can guide us towards the outcome of an environmentally sustainable and financially viable critical piece of infrastructure to serve the UK’s connectivity needs.”


However, he added, there were serious reservations over some of the conditions attached by the Commission to its recommendation, such as a ban on night flights between 2300 and 0600, and the introduction of a community compensation fund and a new aviation noise levy.


Matthew Bell, Chief Executive of the Committee on Climate Change, told the same conference that a growth in aviation demand of 60% by 2050 relative to 2005 was consistent with the UK’s greenhouse gas reduction targets given the rate of technological progress by the sector that was expected over the period. He believed the Commission had been relatively conservative in its carbon forecasts to 2050 as international negotiations on tackling aviation emissions were still ongoing and a precise regime as yet unknown.


Analysis carried out by the Committee showed that runway expansion in the UK could be compatible with climate commitments, Bell said. However, he added, it was up to the UK Government to both set out clear policies to help achieve the carbon reduction targets and to act with governments around the world to achieve a workable international agreement on aviation emissions.


Bell revealed that in the CCC’s advice to the Government for the UK carbon budget period 2028-2032 to be submitted in a report later this year, it would include analysis on the impact of a new runway.




Airports Commission

Environmental Audit Committee inquiry

AEF – ‘The Airport Commission’s final report – has it closed the carbon gap?’ briefing

Committee on Climate Change

IATA – Tony Tyler’s Runways UK speech

Runways UK




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