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British airport expansion and the climate catastrophe

Ian Sinclair interviews Dr DECLAN FINNEY and Dr GIULIO MATTIOLI about capping short haul flights, downsizing airports and taxing kerosene

THE debate about airport expansion in Britain and the climate crisis has been dominated by Heathrow airport.

In a recent article for Carbon Brief, Dr Declan Finney, a post-doctoral researcher in the Institute for Climate and Atmospheric Science at the University of Leeds, and Dr Giulio Mattioli, a research associate at the Department of Transport Planning at TU-Dortmund in Germany and guest research fellow in the Sustainability Research Institute at the University of Leeds, broadened the debate by discussing their research on airport expansion across Britain.

Ian Sinclair (IS): What did your research discover about expansion plans for British airports and whether these are compatible with the “net-zero carbon emissions by 2050” pathway set out by the committee on climate change and accepted by the government?

Declan Finney and Giulio Mattioli (DF/GM): Some British airports already have capacity to serve many more passengers than currently, and have indicated intentions to drive demand for this capacity.

For example, Manchester served 28 million passengers in 2017, but there could be 55 million passengers flying from the airport within the next few decades.

Meanwhile, environmental movements such as youthstrike4climate and Extinction Rebellion have carried out protests around the approval of several airport expansions, notably Heathrow, with plans to increase passenger numbers by over 70 per cent.

But also smaller airports such Leeds-Bradford which has been given approval for 70 per cent increase on current numbers. On top of all that, all other airports we looked at had ambitious plans for expansion.

Many of these plans are shockingly large given the already substantial contribution aviation makes to climate change, but the aim for a nine-fold increase in passenger numbers at Doncaster-Sheffield airport from 1.3 million to 11.8 million by 2050 is particularly large.

We considered these changes in line with the limited growth of 25 per cent by 2050 (relative to today) allowed by the committee on climate change. Based on our conservative estimates, full use of existing capacity and approved expansions would already push us beyond that level of growth. Heathrow alone would be a 19 per cent increase.

However, when ambitions of all the airports are taken into consideration, the British aviation industry appears to be aiming for a 60 per cent growth in demand on 2017 passenger numbers. It will be extremely difficult to compensate the emissions resulting from such an increase in demand with other measures, and would rely on approaches that the committee on climate change considers to “have very low levels of technology readiness, very high costs, and/or significant barriers to public acceptability.”

IS: In your Carbon Brief article you make an interesting comparison between road-building in the 20th century and proposed airport expansions today.

DF and GM: There are strong parallels. In the 1950s and 1960s the conventional wisdom was that a rapid increase in car ownership and use was inevitable, and that it would result in crippling congestion unless the network was expanded and roads widened.

What happened, though, is that those roads actually encouraged more car use (and ultimately congestion), in a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy which transport experts call “induced demand.” 

It could be said that something similar is happening now with airports.

We are told that it is imperative to expand them, or we won’t be able to cope with increased demand.

But the truth is that airport expansion will result in more and cheaper flights, which in turn will encourage people to fly more often.

By contrast, if we choose not to expand airports, chances are that demand for air travel will not increase as much. The key point is that none of this is inevitable: expanding airports is not a neutral technical measure, it’s a political choice with important consequences. And it flies in the face of the Climate Emergency declaration passed by the House of Commons.

IS: Last month The Guardian published a report titled “Electric planes on the horizon as industry heeds climate warnings.” What do you make of claims that “some forms of sustainable aviation … may be coming into view,” as the report asserts?

DF and GM: It’s important to keep in mind that such claims come mainly from the aviation industry, and are amplified by over-enthusiastic media.

Who doesn’t love an article about some fancy new “green” technology? The reason why the industry keeps pushing these claims is that it buys them time.

If new tech could clean up aviation, there would be no need to curb air travel demand and airport expansion, and the aviation industry could continue with business as usual.

The truth, though, is that there is no technological fix to the aviation emission problem.

There is no technology that could be scaled up quickly enough to offset the projected increases in demand.

Small electric planes might substitute some short-haul flights in the course of the next decade, but they can hardly be scaled up to flights over longer distances — and these make for the bulk of emissions.

So that will be nowhere near enough to achieve the CO2 reductions that we need. Which is why we need to talk about reducing (or at least not increasing) the number of flights.

IS: What policies do you think the government could introduce that would curb demand, and therefore emissions, in the aviation sector?

DF and GM: Given what we’ve discussed, a first measure would obviously be some sort of moratorium on airport expansion and possibly the scaling down of some existing airports.

Besides that, there are lots of measures that are currently being discussed among academics and environmental activists.

These include, for example, introducing a kerosene tax — few people know it, but aviation fuel is virtually untaxed.

This is socially unfair, as domestic energy and road fuel, which are consumed by most of the population, are taxed.

That’s compared to only about a quarter of the British population that flies more than once in a typical year. This is why some have proposed a “frequent flyer levy,” which would exempt one flight per person per year, but would apply to all subsequent flights.

Other measures might include caps on short-haul and domestic flights, institutional changes in the travel policies of organisations, and improving alternative modes travel.

The use of trains instead of planes for certain journeys is one example of where government could encourage a shift in demand to lower-emission travel.

For instance, measures could be put in place to ensure comparable advertising of journey times.

While trains tend to go city centre to city centre and you can normally jump straight on, there is often substantial travel needed to reach airports as well as go through check-in and security.

Researchers have compared actual travel times, and for a journey such as London-Amsterdam there is very little difference in actual travel time, but flights would be advertised as around two-and-half hours faster.

From personal experience, another barrier to using trains is the difficulty in buying tickets. While with flights it’s straightforward to buy a single ticket that takes you to your final destination (even if there are changeovers), with trains you often have to buy several parts of a journey to Europe separately.

The government could work to break down unnecessary barriers such as this to make the most carbon-efficient types of travel easier to use for the public.

Read the full article, Planned Growth of UK Airports Not Consistent with Net-zero Climate Goal, at Carbon Brief carbonbrief.org.

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