We can't expand airports after declaring a climate emergency – let's shift to low-carbon transport instead

We can't expand airports after declaring a climate emergency – let's shift to low-carbon transport instead
Credit: EPA-EFE/NEIL HALL

The world may finally be waking to the reality of the climate and ecological crisis after 30 years of inaction. But while the UK government has declared a climate and ecological emergency, ongoing plans for airport expansions suggest we're flying full-speed towards crisis rather than away from it.

Globally, from aviation are rising rapidly, and set to further escalate. Passenger numbers are rising far too fast for efficiency improvements and alternative technologies, such as electric or biofuel-powered engines, to keep up. What's worse, the impact of flights is two to three times larger than their CO₂ emissions alone, due to the release of nitrogen oxides—powerful greenhouse gases—and the contrails planes leave in their wake which trap even more heat in the atmosphere. The aviation industry has also evaded fuel taxes, emissions regulations, and is often completely omitted in emissions accounting.

This is particularly important as cities are setting targets to reduce their . While many of these cities have airports, their climate strategies tend to focus on the emissions released within the city's boundaries and from their electricity use. They don't account for emissions from imported goods and services that are consumed in the city but produced elsewhere, nor from flights through their airports. Any emissions from residents travelling outside the city are generally omitted.

Take Leeds for example

One example is Leeds in the UK, where the city council recently declared a climate emergency and committed the city to emitting no more than 42 megatonnes of CO₂ from 2018 until 2050. But the city's targets sit uncomfortably alongside plans to expand Leeds Bradford Airport.

We can't expand airports after declaring a climate emergency – let's shift to low-carbon transport instead
Climate impact of all flights through Leeds Bradford Airport if passengers increase to 8m (red), remain at 2018 level of 4m (yellow) or fall to 1m by 2030 (green), compared to the target emissions for Leeds as a whole (black dashed curve). Credit: Jefim Vogel, Author provided

The expansion should double the number of passengers using the airport every year from 4m to 8m by 2030. The climate impact of all those flights would be more than double the 2030 target emissions for Leeds as a whole. If passenger numbers continue growing after 2030, even at a slower rate, the overshoot would escalate to a factor of nine by 2040.

By 2050, the combined climate impact of all flights through Leeds Bradford Airport since 2018 would exceed the for Leeds as a whole by a factor of 2.5. Even if only one in four passengers are Leeds residents, their flights alone would use up 62% of the city's entire carbon budget by 2050.

As aviation is governed mostly at a national level, Leeds City Council may argue it has little control over the expansion, but is it even trying to stop it? Their Inclusive Growth Strategy suggests the opposite: endorsing the expansion and promising new transport links to the airport with a new commercial centre nearby.

Preparing an emergency landing

If the number of passengers using Leeds Bradford Airport remained at their current levels, all flights from 2018 to 2050 combined would still produce a climate impact equivalent to the entire carbon budget of Leeds. Only if passenger numbers fell drastically could flying become remotely compatible with climate targets.

We can't expand airports after declaring a climate emergency – let's shift to low-carbon transport instead
Even if passenger numbers remain at 2018 levels, air traffic at Leeds Bradford would overshoot the city’s carbon budget. Credit: Jefim Vogel, Author provided

If cut in half by 2022 and 75% by 2030, the flights of Leeds residents alone would use up 8% of the city's carbon budget. This might be just low enough to squeeze all other activities in Leeds into the remaining carbon budget—if these are also radically decarbonised.

Such a drastic reduction might seem difficult, but perhaps some flights are more dispensable than others. For UK residents, 70% of all flights in 2014 were claimed by just 15% of the population, and while many business leaders fly every week, more than half of the population didn't fly at all in 2014.

Given how sharply the number of flights has to decrease, the difficult question then is who gets to fly, and for what purpose. Should priority be given to someone taking their fourth this year to their second home in the Mediterranean, or to someone visiting their family living abroad? And how is this decided? A first step might be to increase taxes in line with the number of flights a person takes, with what's called a frequent flyer levy.

But that's not enough. Price mechanisms can't make the value judgements at the heart of this—and they could just make flying exclusive to a rich elite who could still afford it. It seems more appropriate to make these decisions through democratic deliberation processes like citizens' assemblies.

Read more: To tackle the climate crisis we need more democracy, not less

We can't expand airports after declaring a climate emergency – let's shift to low-carbon transport instead
Expanding and improving rail travel could make some flights redundant. Credit: Blanscape/Shutterstock

A low-carbon transport system

Reducing flights will need to come with wider changes in and society. A large share of current air traffic could be made redundant by using video conferences for meetings. Improving rail transport could make for a low-carbon and affordable alternative to flying for medium-distance travel. More overnight trains with sleeping facilities and better cross-border integration of rail operators would help. Carefully developing attractive holiday locations closer to home, made accessible by electrified public transport, and promoting low-carbon activities like bike trips could also reduce demand for flights.

Another major issue is car transport which accounts for the lion's share of transport emissions and causes severe air pollution, with dramatic impacts on public health. Road accidents are a major cause of death worldwide, far exceeding deaths from malaria or war, and road networks and car parks take up lots of public space.

Making transport systems sustainable means ending the dependence on car travel. This involves massively expanding reliable and affordable, low-carbon within and between cities. It also means better urban planning, with more bike lanes, bike sharing and car-free zones. Suburbs should be designed so that a car isn't necessary for getting around. And a drastically reduced car fleet could be bound to fuel efficiency standards before eventually becoming fully electric.

Deep and rapid changes to the world's systems are needed to halt climate change, and many of these would also improve human well-being and public life. But to get there involves challenging powerful vested interests in aviation and the car and oil industries. The challenges are vast, but doing nothing means accepting an unacceptable future.


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Citation: We can't expand airports after declaring a climate emergency – let's shift to low-carbon transport instead (2019, July 30) retrieved 23 August 2019 from https://phys.org/news/2019-07-airports-declaring-climate-emergency-shift.html
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User comments

Jul 30, 2019
it is very clear that regulators need to require aircrafts manufacturers to build cleaner aircrafts and there is one way to do it, it is with Hydrogen. Batteries are too heavy in comparison with zero-emission hydrogen. There is a lot of loud-speaking, however, there is one neede clear course of action that works very well, which is hydrogen engine, so the problem is not the lack of solutions but rather that regulators are refusing to regulate that industry, and are looking the other way around. This is why progress is not sufficient, because politicians don't act as they are required to, but act as the aircraft manufacturing industry whishes them to, which means not regulating it.

Jul 30, 2019
"works very well, which is hydrogen engine, so the problem is not the lack of solutions but rather that regulators are refusing to regulate that industry,"

Saila I really hope that you never passed any physics courses in HS or College. If you did it is a sad comment on today's educational system.

Jul 30, 2019
While I must rationally agree with the ideas expressed by this author, it causes some cognitive dissonance because there's quite a gap between the obvious need and viable solutions. Psychopathy and sociopathy are far too entrenched in culture and society for there to be an obvious path forward to limiting air travel based on social need rather than economics (or fascism and inequity). I can hear the defiant cries of detractors already, "that's socialism! I'd rather watch the planet burn than miss my monthly Mediterranean villa retreat! Let the planet eat cake!"

Jul 30, 2019
chromakey what would all of the planet saving climate alarmists do if they could not fly in their private jets and sail in their mega yachts to the latest climate conference?

Jul 30, 2019
How about we get rid of the coal-fired plants? Can we do that?

Jul 30, 2019
"How about we get rid of the coal-fired plants? Can we do that? "

No because renewables are intermittent. Natural gas power plants are fine BUT we will run out of natural gas very soon if all of the coal plants are shut. Coal is still very abundant.

Jul 30, 2019
What about emission by rocket propellants? We all have observed enormous gases and heat released within minutes of a launch polluting land, atmosphere, and space.

Jul 30, 2019
"What about emission by rocket propellants? We all have observed enormous gases and heat released within minutes of a launch polluting land, atmosphere, and space."

The earth and its atmosphere is so massive that the aircraft and rocket emissions are pretty much meaningless. Nature emits far more greenhouse gasses than man ever could.

Jul 30, 2019
A-listers flock to Google summit in private jets, mega yachts to talk climate change
https://pagesix.c...64331085


Not one word about my "carbon" footprint. Not one f*cking word.

Jul 31, 2019
https://www.breit...e-talks/

Meanwhile YOU are supposed to eat grasshoppers in order to "Save" the planet.

Jul 31, 2019
MR166, get a real job.
The planet needs to be saved now, its air is filled to capacity already with greenhouse gas and the future generations will need to make unthinkable sacrifice just to cope.
Please think about them now, it is not the time to joke around and get paid 15$ an hour to spam and troll public web sites with false information about the risk of climate change.
Let your heart talk, that's all we can do to avoid chaos and suffering.


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