Campaigners have called for regional airport expansion to be suspended after Southampton was given the green light to extend its runway in the early hours of Saturday morning.
The decision to expand Southampton Airport’s runway was made by Eastleigh Borough Council following 19 hours of fraught deliberations.
Proponents said the expansion would create 1,000 jobs and “boost the local economy”, but climate scientists and campaigners have warned that further regional airport expansion could threaten efforts to reach the country’s goal of hitting net-zero emissions by 2050.
The decision on Southampton’s runway came just days after the government delayed plans for a major extension to Leeds Bradford Airport. The government is also currently considering whether to allow expansions to Heathrow and Manston airports.
Cait Hewitt, deputy director of the Aviation Environment Federation, an NGO campaigning on the impacts of air travel, told The Independent: “We’re seeing lots of applications for airport expansion at the moment despite the fact the industry has taken a hammering from the coronavirus pandemic.
“What these plans show is that the climate impact of airport expansion is not something that can be easily determined at a local level. The government really needs to get its act together in terms of setting out how the aviation sector in the UK is going to play its part in delivering net zero.”
At present, local authorities have been left to make decisions on individual airport expansion projects without any guidance on how to consider the cumulative impact on emissions that could occur if many airports decide to expand, she said.
Analysis by AEF found that, if all expansion plans put forward by UK airports were to proceed, it would cause an additional 9 million tons of CO2 to be emitted each year by 2050.
In a landmark report released in December, the UK’s climate advisers said there should be no new net airport expansion if the country is to meet its target of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050.
AEF is calling for the government to bring in a temporary suspension on regional airport expansion until it can set out a plan for how it intends to address emissions from aviation.
“We would support a moratorium on airport expansions until the government has figured out what its policy is on aviation and net zero,” she said.
“When it comes to aviation, the government likes to talk about new technologies and new funding initiatives. But the fundamental question of how you can make aviation fit with net zero plans is one they really need to face up to this year.”
Before the pandemic, aviation accounted for about 3 per cent of global CO2 emissions – and some 7 per cent of the UK’s emissions.
Flying is a particularly “carbon intensive” form of transport for two main reasons. First, the burning of jet fuel causes the release of greenhouse gas emissions, particularly CO2. Second, aircraft also produce other climate-warming substances, such as water vapour, soot and nitrogen oxides.
Eastleigh Borough Council’s decision to allow an extension to Southampton Airport came on the same day that lawmakers in France voted to approve a ban on domestic flights on routes that could be completed by train in two and a half hours.
Greenpeace UK’s head of climate, Kate Blagojevic, called for the government to intervene in the decision to allow expansion at Southampton Airport.
“Now that Eastleigh Borough Council has decided to approve this runway expansion – the climate-wrecking consequences of which are of international significance – the government must make a swift and decisive decision to stop the plans,” she said.
“No dithering, no delays. We need a coherent strategy to reduce aviation emissions, which is compatible with our international obligations.
“We’re just months away from hosting pivotal global climate talks, yet eyebrows are already being raised at many of the government’s bewildering policy decisions on climate action recently. Our climate credibility, essential for effectively leading these critical talks, is clearly at stake. The government must claw back some dignity by making the correct decision from the off.”
The Independent approached a government spokesperson for comment.