The climate impact of expansion plans at regional airports in England has been dramatically underestimated and would threaten the UK’s legally binding commitments, according to a report published ahead of a key summit later this year.
The study from the New Economics Foundation (NEF) calculated that proposals to expand four airports in England will lead to an increase in emissions up to eight times higher than previously claimed.
The report also found that plans to expand Bristol, Leeds Bradford, Southampton and Stansted airports had overestimated their economic benefit – ignoring up to £13.4bn worth of climate damage the plans could cause.
Alex Chapman, the author of the report, said the findings raised concerns about the level of scrutiny the proposals had received.
“The secretary of state should step in and conduct an independent review of all four of these proposals and their compatibility with the UK’s climate targets,” he added.
The report found:
All four airports relied on currently unproven and undeveloped technologies to deliver rapid fuel-efficiency savings over the next few decades.
Three out of the four – Bristol, Leeds Bradford and Stansted – only took account of the climate impact of outbound flights, not the emissions from those arriving at the airport.
Bristol, Leeds Bradford and Stansted did 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.
Leeds Bradford, Southampton and Stansted did not put a monetary value on the climate impacts of expansion and have therefore overestimated the projects’ economic benefits in each region.
The expansion plans have already met fierce opposition from local groups, environmentalists and climate scientists over the past 18 months. Last week in a letter to ministers, groups opposing planned expansions said the UK government must suspend all the plans until it sets out how they fit with its legally binding climate targets and the advice of its own experts.
This week teenagers from West Yorkshire hand-delivered a petition with more than 54,000 signatures to the communities secretary, Robert Jenrick, calling for a public inquiry into Leeds Bradford airport expansion plans.
In total there are expansions planned at seven airports in England: Leeds Bradford, Luton, Bristol, Southampton, Heathrow, Stansted and Manston – all of which are at various stages in the process. Campaigners are also expecting Gatwick to imminently submit plans to increase capacity.
According to the NEF report, Leeds Bradford and Bristol’s expansion plans would cause six times more emissions than previously thought, Stansted eight times and Southampton 1.5 times.
It says that the four schemes are likely to account for an increase in annual airport-level emissions of up to 3.7m tonnes of CO2 and CO2-equivalent in 2035, the year of the government’s new climate target. The equivalent to putting about 1.8m additional cars on Britain’s roads.
The airports defended the climate impact of their expansion plans.
Steve Szalay, operations director at Southampton airport, said it was “wholly committed to working with the wider aviation industry to tackle climate change through new technologies and the introduction of new, more sustainable fuel, however we appreciate that there isn’t an overnight solution”.
“With that in mind we have delivered a worst-case scenario in the environmental impact assessment presented during our recent planning application which would see just a 164-metre extension to our existing runway, this conservative approach doesn’t rely on fuels or technologies that are under development and includes all in-bound and outbound flights.”
A spokesperson for Leeds Bradford airport (LBA), said its plans were “not about expansion, but about achieving what we already have consent to do in a more sustainable way”.
“Development will make LBA an outstanding net zero airport with a much-improved passenger experience, connecting Yorkshire with other parts of the country and the world for business and tourism.”
A spokesperson for Bristol airport said it had a “comprehensive package of measures … to minimise the adverse environmental impacts of an additional 2 million passengers”.
“Expanded capacity at Bristol airport will offer passengers more routes and flights from the south-west directly, create jobs, facilitate inward investment and inbound tourism, and support greener and more sustainable, regional economic growth.”
A spokesperson for Stansted airport said: “Our proposals would mean a small increase in the number of passengers that could use Stansted, but they would not mean an increase in the permitted number of flights. The application to increase the number of passengers using the airport has now gone through a public inquiry with evidence from all parties on all relevant topics, including climate impacts, presented to an independent panel of inspectors. We now await the inspectors’ report.”
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