Aviation growth and climate change

16.08.2022 4 min read

Airports. I can’t keep up, and it seems neither, can they.

A boom in holiday bookings caused GDP to rise by 0.5% in an unexpected return to growth for May 2022 despite flight cancellations at UK airports causing chaos during the May half term and Jubilee weekend. The view from commentators was that the industry wouldn’t be ready for the peak summer season blaming staff shortages, capacity, and reductions in flights. Pre-Covid many airports had expansion and investment plans that were just taking off, most notably Heathrow Airport. However, when the pandemic took hold the skies had never been quieter, staff were axed, plans were shelved and then COP26 happened. COP26 set out the international action needed on climate change goals including the aviation industry. After a tumultuous two years, passenger numbers are bouncing back but what does this mean for aviation growth and climate change?

Aviation growth after Covid

A number of UK airports have recently been granted permission to expand including Stansted, Luton, Southampton, and Leeds Bradford with proposals to expand London City currently under consultation until 9 September 2022. In early February 2022, Bristol Airport Ltd was successful in its appeal against the refusal of outline planning permission by North Somerset Council to enable a 20% increase in throughput from 10 million to 12 million terminal passengers a year (Appeal Ref: APP/D0121/W/20/3259234). Refusal of planning permission was contrary to officers’ recommendation and cited on the grounds of climate change, green belt policies, and residents’ health. The decision was appealed and gathered much public interest regarding planning needs, climate change, and expansion at other airports. A Panel of three Inspectors overturned the decision and allowed the appeal in February 2022 which became subject to a legal challenge three months later in May 2022.

Planning for aviation growth and climate change

When reaching their decision on Bristol Airport, the Panel of Inspectors acknowledged climate change as a “very serious issue facing this country and the world” (para 211). However, they were also clear that “there is no policy which seeks to limit airport expansion or impose capacity limits” (para 215) and that dismissing the appeal on these grounds would not be supported by national policy. The Inspectors acknowledged that the proposals would have a limited increase in CO2 emissions and that it must be assumed that the Secretary of State will comply with the legal duties of the Climate Change Act (2008) and that this must be “across a wide range of activities” (para 214). CO2 emissions from the Bristol expansion plans were not considered to “have a material impact on the Government’s ability to meet its climate change target and budgets” (para 216). Therefore, climate change was regarded as neutral in the planning balance.

Balancing aviation growth and climate change goals

As a result of COP 26, a series of commitments have now been transcribed into a policy paper “COP 26 declaration: International Aviation Climate Ambition Coalition” (updated May 2022). The Declaration recognises the “international aviation’s material contribution to climate change through its CO2 emissions” and that over the next 30 years the number of global passengers and cargo volume is “expected to increase significantly”. Eight commitments have been agreed by the Signatories to provide the “essential” international action needed on climate change, including:

  1. Work together to limit the global average temperature increase
  2. Support the adoption of ambitious long-term aspirational goals consistent with 1.
  3. Ensuring the maximum effectiveness of the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA)
  4. Promoting the development and deployment of sustainable aviation fuels
  5. Promoting the development and deployment of innovative new low- and zero-carbon aircraft technologies
  6. Preparing up-to-date state action plans detailing ambitious and concrete national action to reduce aviation emissions
  7. Promoting capacity-building support for the implementation of CORSIA and other climate measures
  8. Convening periodically at both ministerial and official levels with a view to advancing and reviewing progress on the above commitments.

A turbulent balance

The aviation industry makes a substantial contribution to the UK economy and no policy limits airport expansion or capacity. However, there are legal and policy frameworks in place to ensure environmental protection and the reduction of global emissions. The UK must balance the economic benefits of the industry with impacts on climate change rather than curb the industry altogether. Whilst the aviation industry does contribute to CO2 emissions the comparative magnitude is limited and not material to addressing wider targets on climate change. The legal challenge to Bristol Airports’ approved plans is yet to be heard and finding a balance between aviation growth and climate change will undoubtedly continue to create turbulence until widespread climate change action is taken.

Temple’s planning team represented the communities affected by the proposed expansion of Heathrow Airport, the case study of the project can be found here. We know that whilst there is an international responsibility to address climate change issues there are also many complex local planning issues that need to be addressed to protect the environment, provide jobs and support the local and wider economy. Other significant CO2contributors include energy production, households, industries, agriculture, and deforestation, and reducing climate change impacts must be addressed across these and other activities and not just aviation.


Key Contacts

Dr Xiangyu Sheng Director - Air Quality, Climate & Carbon