City Airport expansion highlights scale of aviation dilemma

Aviation protest

Activist groups have vowed to step up protests against airport expansion

As the UK government deliberates its new aviation policy campaigners warn that moves to approve airport expansion would put climate targets at risk

Campaigners against the expansion of airports suffered a double blow this week. First, on Tuesday, London Mayor Boris Johnson called for the building of additional air travel capacity in South East England, while on Thursday, a High Court judge rejected an appeal against the expansion of London City Airport.

Friends of the Earth had assisted local residents in taking Newham Council to court over its decision in November to allow a 50 per cent expansion of City Airport, arguing that the council had failed to consult properly and had ignored climate change legislation.

FoE's London campaigner Jenny Bates said the High Court decision would 'have a terrible impact on local people's quality of life, as well as increase air pollution breaches and undermine efforts to tackle climate change'. Two days earlier, Boris Johnson called for yet more airport capacity in the south-east, claiming that the economy will suffer as London falls behind other capital cities of the world in the provision of international flights.

Johnson pointed to government research which predicts a massive surge in demand for air travel in this country over the next 20 years, from 240 million to 460 million passengers a year. Although Johnson has long been opposed to further expansion of Heathrow, which he believes is in the wrong location, he called for a new airport or extra runways near the capital: 'We are failing to give UK business the easy connections they need,' he said.

Campaigners have vowed to continue their fight any further expansion of UK airports. 'We think this is absolutely ludicrious, there is no need for airport expansion and we need to be looking at reducing our impact on the climate,' said Wiz Baines, spokesperson for Plane Stupid, a direct action group which campaigns against the expansion of airports. 'We will definitely be fighting against airport expansion wherever it takes place,' she added. Plane Stupid has previously held protests at Stansted, London City, Manchester and Aberdeen airports, with activists getting onto the runways to disrupt air traffic.

Coalition dilemma

The issue of airport expansion has put the Coalition Government in a dilemma. On the one hand, David Cameron has promised that the Coalition would be the 'greenest government ever' and has already scrapped expansion plans for Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted airports.

In October Cameron also ruled out the possibility of building a new airport in the Thames Estuary, Medway or Kent, in direct conflict with Boris Johnson. Yet Cameron is unlikely to stop airport expansion altogether because of its likely impact on the economy. In addition to City airport in East London, at least eight other regional airports are already pursuing ambitious expansion plans, including Belfast City, Birmingham, Bristol and Southend.

The Coalition is currently reviewing aviation policy, with the results expected sometime this spring. A spokesman for the Department of Transport maintained that the government was grateful for Boris Johnson's contribution to the review and claimed that the outcome will please everyone: 'We are working to develop a new framework for aviation which is more sustainable but still supports economic growth.'

Limits on air travel growth

In January 2009 the then-Labour government set a target that carbon emissions from UK aviation should be brought back down to 2005 levels by the year 2050. This became part of its overall target of an 80 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 against 1990 levels. The government then asked the Climate Change Committee to advise how this might be achieved. In response, the committee predicted that biofuels will only account for 10 per cent of aviation fuel by 2050. Airlines could probably achieve a 30 per cent reduction in carbon emissions per passenger mile by 2050 thanks to better fuel efficiency and other improvements.

Therefore, the committee concluded, the government must limit the growth of air travel to just 60 per cent by 2050, to stand any chance of keeping aviation emissions to 2005 levels. It could do this through carbon taxes, restrictions on the expansion of airports, support for new high-speed rail networks and encouraging the use of video conferencing to replace business air travel. Left unrestricted, demand for air travel in the UK will grow by more than 200 per cent by 2050, the committee warned.

John Stewart, chair of Airport Watch, a network of local airport campaign groups and larger NGOs such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, believes the Coalition is serious about putting limits on air travel. 'I think the government will say no new runways in the South East, which is where the main market is, but they will possibly allow expansion at other airports in the country,' he says.

New aviation taxes

Stewart wants new taxes to make air travel more expensive: 'We have to reduce flying and the only way to do that is to ensure the aviation industry pays its fair share of tax. At the moment there is no tax paid on aviation fuel and no VAT is paid on airplane tickets, or on the purchase of airplanes or parts for airplanes,' he says. These sentiments are echoed by Richard Dyer, transport campaigner at Friends of the Earth: 'The demand for air travel has to be managed,' he says. 'It would help if the aviation industry paid fair taxes.'

The problem for the government is that raising the cost of air travel could be political suicide. The then-chancellor Gordon Brown's raising of air passenger duty in 2007 by around £10 was politically controversial, yet condemned as ineffectual by environmentalists. The decision this month by the Co-operative Bank to take part in the re-financing of Manchester Airport shows that when it comes to air travel, compromise and pragmatism can hold sway.

Paul Monaghan, head of social goals and sustainability at the Co-op, said the decision to finance Manchester Airport did not contradict the bank's ethical policy: 'We won't finance the extraction or processing of fossil fuels, and that's the most radical position of any retail bank in the world,' he said. Asked whether financing the airport would indirectly cause fossil fuel extraction, he said, 'If you go down that route, we would not fund car [purchases]. We have to draw the line somewhere. It is impossible to cut this business off from the use of fossil fuels,' he added.

None of this is likely to placate aviation activist groups like Plane Stupid who say they are expecting to 'increase the scale' of their protests against airport expansion in 2011.

Airports with active plans for additional capacity (from AirportWatch):

Belfast City
East Midlands
London City
Manston (Kent International)

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