Industry and green groups clash on the economic and climate impacts of UK runway expansion
Mon 21 July 2014 – A new report from the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) says action is needed to boost the UK’s air links with emerging markets but this need not have to come at the expense of environmental commitments. It warns that without urgent and decisive action from politicians on the future of the UK’s airport infrastructure, businesses would miss out on the new connections they need, hampering efforts on trade and investment. However, another report from three UK green groups – RSPB, WWF and Aviation Environment Federation (AEF) – concludes plans to expand airport capacity are based on a “wing and a prayer” and the UK’s climate targets cannot be met unless industry as a whole takes on the added costs that would result from having to make additional carbon savings if aviation emissions were allowed to soar. A further report on the UK’s first four-year carbon budget period shows aviation emissions fell between 2008 and 2012.
The CBI report says investments made by the aerospace and aviation industries are already having an impact on noise and greenhouse gas emissions. With the new technologies in the pipeline and greater collaboration between industry and government, the UK can meet projected demand while reducing noise and emissions.
The industry representative group says its research shows the value of each and every additional flight to a high-growth market is as much as £175,000 ($300,000). It estimates the impact of each daily direct route to an emerging market on annual levels of trade to be £128 million ($218m), with a £1 billion ($1.7bn) potential annual boost to trade if eight new daily direct routes were started to emerging economies.
The CBI calls on all political parties to commit to the findings of the Airport Commission’s final report on new runway capacity in the south-east of England when published in 2015, and urges the government to take action to improve ground connections to airports across the UK and safeguard UK freight capacity.
“The environmental challenges of growing the UK’s air links are quite rightly a concern for the public, businesses and politicians alike. But this is not a question of green or growth – both can, and must, go hand in hand,” said Nicola Walker, CBI Director for Business Environment.
Under the UK’s Climate Change Act, economy-wide emissions are required to be reduced by 80% in 2050 on 1990 levels, including those from aviation. Acknowledging the difficulty of reducing emissions from aviation when alternative means to conventional fossil fuels are currently unavailable, the target for aviation is a less stringent effort to bring emissions back to 2005 levels in 2050. The UK government’s climate advisers, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has said this target could be achieved through a combination of fuel and operational efficiency improvement, use of sustainable biofuels and by limiting demand growth to around 60% in 2050 compared to 2005. However, this could only be achieved, it says, if other industrial sectors reduce their emissions by 85% instead of 80%, the limit of what the CCC considers feasible.
A report by the RSPB, ‘Aviation, climate change and sharing the load’, argues the extra burden on the wider economy from having to make deeper emissions cuts as a result of UK aviation expansion could cost industry between £1 billion ($1.7bn) and £8.4 billion ($14.3bn) per year by 2050.
“The rest of the economy will be heavily penalised if emissions from aviation are not constrained,” said the author of the report, Adam Dutton. “When the rest of society is already being asked to decarbonise by at least 80%, this is neither fair nor efficient.”
The report finds the present regulatory regime aspirational and ineffective. “We are therefore basing our decision to build a new runway on a world as we would like it to be – rather than as it currently exists,” it says.
In order to comply with the Act, the study concludes the only options are to manage future demand by increasing the cost of carbon, which would see fares rise to unrealistically high levels, or constrain capacity at airports by ruling out any new runways.
The second report, ‘Implications of South-East expansion for regional airports’, from AEF and commissioned by WWF-UK, states it would be impossible to build an additional runway in the south-east of the country and keep aviation emissions consistent with meeting UK climate targets without cutting airport capacity elsewhere. In practice, this could mean many regional airports would need either to be closed or limited to operating fewer flights than today’s levels, it finds, which would conflict with government and commercial forecasts that anticipate at least 200% growth by 2050.
“The Airports Commission and future governments have a choice to make: either allow aviation expansion in the south-east and heavily constrain regional airports or let regional airports grow within the capacity they already have but don’t build any new runways,” said AEF Deputy Director Cait Hewitt. “But climate change limits mean that you can’t do both.”
Added WWF-UK Head of Transport Jean Leston: “Thinking you can build a new runway at Heathrow or Gatwick while still keeping to UK climate targets is being over-optimistic and using assumptions that are based on a wing and a prayer, not on the real world.”
The CBI report, on the other hand, argues that decreasing capacity in the south-east constrains access to onward connections from regional airports, especially at the UK’s Heathrow hub. “Given the importance large multi-nationals put on air connectivity, this should also be a real concern, with the potential to hold back inward investment right across the UK,” it says.
According to its ‘Meeting Carbon Budgets – 2014 Progress Report to Parliament’ published last week, the CCC reveals UK domestic aviation emissions fell 28% and international aviation emissions 10% in the carbon budget period 2008-2012. In 2012, annual domestic emissions fell by 4.4% from 1.7 MtCO2 to 1.6 MtCO2 and international emissions – which are currently excluded from carbon budgets but in the 2050 target – fell by 2.7%, from 32.8 MtCO2 to 32.0 MtCO2 (see figure 1 below). The reductions over the four-year period reflect a fall in aviation demand and supply, it says, and a fuel efficiency improvement averaging 1.6% per year.
EU aviation emissions also fell over the period, by an average of 7% across both the EU-28 and EU-15. While UK emissions fell more, they remain the highest in Europe.
In its interim report released in December 2013, the Airports Commission recommended the need for an additional runway in the south-east by 2030 and suggested there could be a case for a second additional runway by 2050. It re-examined 2009 forecasts from the CCC in terms of the 2050 objectives and found an increase in demand of 67% would be compatible with returning aviation emissions to 2005 levels by 2050, provided there were significant improvements in aviation carbon intensity.
The Airport Commission’s emission projections are broadly similar in profile to the previous CCC analysis, with both showing emissions rising over time before flattening off. However, the Commission’s projections are lower in absolute terms and show aviation emissions closer to 2005 levels in 2050 than those of the CCC’s (see figure 2 below). This largely reflects, explains the CCC, a lower starting point due to the recession, lower forecasts of future economic growth and changes to government capacity. The higher end of the Commission’s scenario range reflects unconstrained capacity, the lower end for current government policy for no new airport capacity.