UK government's aviation strategy supports action on emissions and noise but stays silent on airport capacity expansion
Fri 5 Apr 2013 – The maintenance of the UK’s standing as a leading international air transport hub and the mitigation of the aviation sector’s environmental impacts are among the key goals set out by the British government in its Aviation Policy Framework. Released by the Department for Transport, the document consolidates existing policies and outlines new objectives as it seeks to ensure the growth of an industry that provides £10 billion ($15bn) in UK economic output whilst simultaneously reducing the effects of its emissions and noise pollution. However, despite a strong focus on both economic and environmental issues, the Framework avoids the contentious issue of airport capacity expansion in the UK, which has led to criticism from both industry and environmentalists.
The Secretary of State for Transport, Patrick McLoughlin, believes the Framework, which replaces the 2003 Air Transport White Paper issued by the last UK government, provides a comprehensive policy approach to the development of UK aviation. “This document strikes the right balance between allowing the aviation industry to thrive while minimising impacts on the environment and local communities,” he said.
In its chapter on climate change, the document calls for aviation to make “a significant and cost-effective contribution towards reducing global emissions.” It emphasises that the UK government is strongly in favour of a comprehensive global deal on emissions reductions, citing that 95% of UK aviation emissions are produced by international flights. An international agreement is preferable, it says, because it prevents the distortions of competition and carbon leakage that arise from regional solutions such as the EU ETS. As a result, the Framework expresses the UK government’s approval of recent steps at ICAO towards a global market-based mechanism intended to address the issue.
Despite this preference for co-ordinated global action, the UK government uses the document to reiterate its continuing support for the goals of EU policies such as the EU ETS and the Single European Sky (SES). In the case of the latter, the Framework highlights the UK and Ireland’s creation of the first Functional Airspace Block in the EU as evidence of the government’s commitment to reducing emissions. It estimates that this jointly controlled airspace saved 152,000 tonnes of CO2 between 2008 and 2011 through improved operational efficiencies.
At a specifically national level, the UK government expresses more reticence to address aviation emissions. The Framework does not contain proposals to bring aviation emissions into national carbon budgets, nor does it propose a national emissions reduction target for the industry. It says that before either could be properly assessed, a clearer picture of the outcomes of both the ICAO negotiations and the success of the EU ETS is needed.
The second environmental impact to feature prominently in the Framework is noise pollution. The UK government uses the document to outline its aim to limit the number of people in the country exposed to significant aircraft noise. It underlines the importance of this issue by urging airport operators to consider it above all other environmental concerns when considering development plans. The document also states that the government intends to work closely with the UK CAA on the introduction of noise envelopes that will give greater certainty to local communities about the noise levels they can expect from an airport in the future.
One subject that the Aviation Policy Framework deliberately avoids is new runway or airport construction in the South East of the UK. Instead, it says that the UK government will wait for the recommendations of the Airports Commission – an independent body set up in 2012 to review the expansion of UK airport capacity – in 2015 before deciding on a particular policy course. It emphasises that “any new nationally significant airport infrastructure” would require a further accompanying policy document to augment the Framework’s objectives.
In a statement to Parliament, the Minister of State for Transport, Simon Burns, outlined that the Aviation Policy Framework “provides the baseline for the Airports Commission to take into account on important issues such as aircraft noise and climate change.”
The Airports Commission is headed by the economist Sir Howard Davies and is due to provide a final assessment of different options for expanding the UK’s airport capacity in 2015.
The Aviation Environment Federation (AEF), an environmental NGO, delivered a mixed response to the publication of the Framework. Whilst it welcomed the omission of specific plans to construct new runways, which were present in the previous Labour government’s 2003 Air Transport White Paper, it criticised the lack of progress in environmental policy for aviation.
“We’re delighted that today marks the official end of the 2003 airports policy, which we campaigned against for many years, and we’re very pleased that the Government is no longer explicitly supporting new runways,” said Cait Hewitt, Deputy Director at AEF. “But we are deeply disappointed that after promises about bringing the aviation sector into line with climate policy and about the need to reflect the latest research on noise, no new policy measures have been proposed to tackle these impacts. The Airports Commission has been left with a lot of gaps to fill in defining what environmental criteria should apply to future proposals for airport expansion.”
Simon Buck, Chief Executive of the British Air Transport Association, commented: “The Framework marks the Coalition Government’s recognition that it is vital that the UK needs to have a proper aviation policy. As yet, it does not.”
He said for the UK economy to compete in both established and emerging markets, excellent aviation connectivity was required across the country to ensure “vibrant” point to point airports and sufficient world-class hub capacity.
“This means prioritising a favourable planning and regulatory regime and developing a bold aviation policy, providing for new airport capacity where it is required,” he said. “Having devolved the tricky decisions to Sir Howard Davies, his Commission needs to take a holistic approach and consider wider issues, such as more competitive visa and tax regimes, efficient border operations and general airport connectivity as the quick wins on capacity have all been achieved. The Commission should not just be considering where and if to pour concrete.”