Guest post: Planned growth of UK airports not consistent with net-zero climate goal

(CarbonBrief, 24 Jun 2019) For years, plans to expand London’s Heathrow airport have been hotly debated by many sides. One argument against expansion relates to its apparent incompatibility with the UK’s targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which have recently been strengthened to net-zero emissions by 2050.

As well as Heathrow, other airports also have expansion plans. We have investigated the plans from the largest UK airports and found them to be on course for much higher growth than is compatible with the pathway for carbon reductions set out by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC).

Aviation growth and climate change

Evidence to date indicates that unrestricted growth in the aviation sector is unlikely to be offset by technological improvements to efficiency. Up to now, the rapid increase in air-travel demand has always outstripped efficiency and technological improvements in the aviation sector. This is the main reason why the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions from international aviation have more than doubled since 1990 – much faster than for other transport segments.

The recent net-zero report by the CCC sets out comprehensive plans for the UK to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050. The report comments that:

“…given a population that is anticipated to grow and rising incomes, some growth in [aviation] demand is expected. However, this cannot be unfettered. We have maintained our previous assumption that demand grows by 60% relative to 2005 levels (25% relative to today) by 2050”

As implied, this limitation on growth is not a new target: it was already included in the plans to achieve the previous 80% emission reduction target. The CCC will be writing to the government later in 2019 regarding its approach to aviation. The need to revisit government policy on aviation in light of the CCC report has recently been acknowledged by a senior civil servant in the Department of Transport.

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CarbonBrief, 24 Jun 2019: Guest post: Planned growth of UK airports not consistent with net-zero climate goal