Ought to airports be allowed to develop?


By Roger Harrabin
BBC environmental analyst

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Airports across the UK are looking to expand and increase their flights despite the government’s commitment to cut emissions.

Are their plans bad for the environment and will they affect Britain’s ambitions to achieve zero net carbon emissions by 2050?

Why do airports want to expand?

Airports are privately operated and want to grow in order to increase profits.

UK airports also employ hundreds of thousands of people and the owners say having a strong aviation sector is vital to the UK’s future as a trading nation. Many pension funds are invested in the industry.

Because of this, city councils have approved a new terminal at Leeds Bradford Airport and an extension of the runway in Southampton can be agreed later this month.

A total of eight airports across the UK are planning growth.

Covid restrictions have hit aviation hard with few people currently flying. However, the industry is hoping the numbers will recover.

What are the arguments against it?

Flying causes noise and local pollution – and it contributes to greenhouse gases that overheat the planet. British Airways’ CO2 emissions alone were similar to those of all British vans combined, says the green group Transenv.

BA doesn’t deny the number, but says it is committed to reducing its impact.

Currently, flying accounts for around 6% of the UK’s emissions – but aviation was only allowed to stabilize its emissions while other sectors need to cut their emissions. So the effects of flying will increase proportionally over time.

Airplanes also damage the climate in other ways. They emit nitrogen oxide (NOx), a pollutant. They also create contrails – bands of clouds that can warm the atmosphere.

Image rightsGetty ImagesImage descriptionIt is believed that contrails, or contrails, contribute to the warming of the atmosphere

What is the government saying?

There is currently no government plan to reduce overall aviation emissions, although ministers will announce a strategy to reduce transport emissions in the coming months.

A large infrastructure project like Heathrow’s third runway is automatically subject to public scrutiny. At the moment, however, there is nothing in the planning law that could prevent the expansion of regional airports.

The Climate Change Committee (CCC), which advises the government, says if one airport is expanded, another contract should be signed. However, no airport has volunteered to reduce operations.

Will the regional airport expansion continue?

The proposal to expand Leeds Bradford Airport is on the desk of Community Secretary Robert Jenrick, who has to make a decision by April 6th. He can judge that the building permit for regional airports should be regulated locally as there is no British guideline.

Would clean fuels make a difference?

The CCC says that the only way to make aviation greener is if airplanes become much more economical or use low-carbon fuels made from crops or waste. However, these will not be available on a large scale for some time – and there is no immediate prospect of battery-powered aircraft either.

In addition, even supposedly clean existing fuels like hydrogen still produce NOx when burned, and the water vapor they emit is a powerful greenhouse gas.

What can you do to reduce flight emissions?

The simplest answer is not to fly at all. If you have to go on a business trip or can’t stand a summer without guaranteed sunshine, don’t fly in business class because the bigger the seats, the fewer travelers and the higher the emissions per passenger.

You could buy an offset – this is a way to calculate and offset your flight emissions by having trees planted, for example.

The Aviation Environment Federation (AEF) suggests that the most trustworthy offsetting is through a method called Direct Air Capture (DAC), which uses renewable energy to suck emissions directly from the atmosphere.

However, using DAC on a debt-free transatlantic flight would translate into an estimated £ 240 for a return trip from London to New York, says AEF.

These are the real environmental costs of flying.

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What can companies do?

Tax officials were pleased to find that executives were able to do much of their work on Zoom during the lockdown, saving a small fortune in business class seating. This trend is likely to continue to some extent.

Combating frequent flyer programs (FFPs) would also be effective. At the moment, executives collect airline miles with every flight. They then exchange these with their families for leisure flights. The more they fly, the more incentives they get to fly.

In Germany, airline miles are taxed as benefits in kind. However, the environmental campaign group Greenpeace says they are so harmful that they should be banned altogether.