Is climate change up in the air?

3 min read

Back in August 2022, I wrote an article on the expansion plans for Bristol Airport which had been successfully allowed at appeal in February 2022 with an application for judicial review from objection groups, accepted in May 2022. The outline proposals sought permission to increase capacity at Bristol Airport from 10 million to 12 million terminal passengers a year, The application had understandably raised queries in relation to climate change and other emissions by increasing aviation capacity.  The judgement in the JR was handed down on 31 January 2023 with the overarching conclusion being:

“The main issue, in this case, is not whether emissions from any additional aircraft using Bristol Airport should be ignored. Plainly, they should not. Rather, it is about how and by whom those emissions should be addressed.”

In my time, I have worn many a planning hat. I’ve worked on projects involving boreholes and bats and boats, many of which required the involvement of various other regulatory regimes. Yes, the UK regulatory system is complex but I am not sure it is possible to offer the levels of environmental protection we do in a simplistic way. On that basis, it is easy to understand why it is difficult to detach ourselves from land use planning and all the other intricacies of a planning application, even as a professional. But, land use planning, under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, is concerned with exactly that; how land will be used.

As set out in paragraph 188 of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) the role of planning is to determine whether the proposed land use is acceptable, rather than the control of emissions. Other regimes exist to manage processes, operations or legal requirements associated with the approved land use. This might include for example bat licences from Natural England (Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017), an environmental permit from the Environment Agency (The Environmental Permitting Regulations 2016) or a marine licence from the Marine Management Organisation (Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009). As discussed in the judgement, the Climate Change Act 2008 “places an obligation on the SoS, not local decision makers, to prepare policies and proposals with a view to meeting the carbon budgets” and there is an assumption in the NPPF that the controls put in place will work.

All six grounds for judicial review were dismissed by the Judge who reiterated that there was no dispute between parties on the importance of climate change. It was concluded that whilst emissions were a material consideration, these are to be dealt with at a national level and across a wide range of activities. The UK must balance economic benefits with climate change impacts, and there is no policy that limits the expansion or capacity increases of airports. In fact, aviation policy is to make better land use of existing runway capacity at UK airports depending on the merits of each case including addressing environmental protection. There is no disputing the importance of climate change. The planning system plays a key role in implementing the national carbon reduction strategy across a wide variety of activities and there are opportunities, and indeed responsibilities, to do that on the ground as well as in the air.