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No easy approach to UK's airport strategy

Managing the growth and capacity of UK airports are key areas of the government’s pledge to cut emissions. But a new report by ICE aviation experts wants policy makers to take a more holistic approach.

The ICE has urged the Government to rethink its decision to veto new runways at the country’s busiest airports.
In a new report published today, Rethinking Aviation, the ICE warns that a ‘better not bigger’ approach to airport runway capacity could seriously undermine the UK’s global connectivity and competitiveness, and see us lagging behind North European rivals that have been boosting their hub runway capacity at a considerable rate.

The report acknowledges that the government has ruled out building additional runway capacity in the south east as part of the aim to reduce aviation emissions, and agrees that unrestrained growth in demand for air travel without quick improvements in aircraft efficiency would damage the environment. However, it urges government to think carefully about the UK’s long-term airport infrastructure needs and the wider implications of its decision.

Green agenda

ICE aviation expert Simon Godfrey-Arnold said: “We agree the green agenda must be a priority, and realise that when it comes to the UK’s airport infrastructure needs, there are some tough political and public choices. But we believe there are choices that can secure the best outcomes for the environment, society and the economy.

“In the long term, the aviation industry must step up aircraft innovation and replacement rates to fully contribute to emissions reduction targets”

Simon Godfrey-Arnold

“Air transport and airport infrastructure are vital for the UK’s international connectivity and prosperity. As a trading island and popular tourist destination we depend on our ability to connect with the rest of the world.
“World class airport infrastructure helps attract inward investment, enables access to an international labour force and provides direct business and leisure links to growing economies around the world like China, Brazil and India.

“Heathrow, with its two runways, is currently operating at 99% of permitted capacity. Journey times are increasing as aircraft become stacked up in queues both on the ground and in the air. Capacity constraints could result in international carriers abandoning our hub airport in favour of larger and more economically attractive northern European hubs, such as Amsterdam Schiphol which has five runways and Frankfurt which has three and a fourth in progress. If the government is still against South East expansion after full consideration it must explore other options - but this does not mean simply squeezing yet more flights out of Heathrow,” he said.

Meeting emissions targets

The ICE report says the Government should consider whether, in the short term, the aviation industry can in fact make a real impact on UK emissions targets, due to its reliance on an industry led ‘tech fix’ to become more environmentally efficient and the fact that there is no other practical mode of travelling internationally.

It makes the case for international aviation becoming a ‘legacy’ carbon user in the short term, which would see the focus on cutting transport emissions shifting to other areas where alternative power sources are available and bigger emissions cuts can be achieved.

The ICE says this could help government reopen the door to the prospect of additional runway capacity and also see it concentrating its efforts on implementing measures to help address the growing demand for air travel - such as viable alternatives to domestic flights.

Godfrey-Arnold insisted that the ICE’s view did not suggest that aviation should be exempt from carbon cutdowns. “In the long term, the aviation industry must step up aircraft innovation and replacement rates to fully contribute to emissions reduction targets,” he said.

The report - which looks at the role of regional airports, airport access, alternatives to domestic flights as well as airport runway capacity - also warns that high-speed rail alone will not be enough to curtail domestic short haul flights.

High speed rail’s potential

Godfrey-Arnold continued: “We see huge environmental potential in high-speed rail and welcome the government’s commitment to improving connectivity. However, encouraging the shift from air travel to low carbon transport options like high-speed rail depends on its ability to compete with air travel on price, flexibility and connectivity, which is not always the case.

“If it cannot compete on these levels it won’t attract enough passengers to make it either cost or carbon efficient.”

The ICE calls for measures such as the introduction of floor carbon pricing, which could help curb demand for air travel by raising the price of flying, therefore making high-speed rail a potentially cheaper option. The ICE also urges the government to immediately set in train the decarbonisation of the electricity generation sector to maximise the full environmental potential of surface alternatives such as high speed rail.

Godfrey-Arnold concluded: “The upcoming Aviation National Policy Statement presents a timely opportunity to fully consider the UK’s long term airport infrastructure needs and the options. The ICE is keen to work with government and facilitate a sensible debate.”

  • View Rethinking Aviation at: www.ice.org.uk/transportbriefings

Key recommendations

  • Government must use the upcoming Aviation National Policy Statement to fully consider the UK’s long-term airport infrastructure needs.
  • With no viable alternative to aviation fuel, no other practical mode of international travel other than air for most journeys and huge economic benefits derived from air transport, Government must consider the case for international aviation to become a legacy carbon user in the short term.
  • Government must immediately set in train the decarbonisation of the electricity generation sector to maximise the full environmental potential of surface alternatives such as high-speed rail.
  • Government must guarantee a minimum (floor) carbon price in the medium to long-term to help curb demand for air travel. ICE supports the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, but recommends it is reformed with a realistic price of carbon for all emissions.
  • Access to and from UK airports is in need of urgent attention. A more integrated transport approach is required to address over usage of the private car and under usage of public transport. This could reduce the carbon impact of overall surface access levels and help reduce road congestion.
  • Industry must step up aircraft innovation and replacement rates to fully contribute to emissions reduction and environmental improvement.
  • Government must stringently regulate the full range of other non-CO2 environmental impacts from aviation and airport infrastructure, such as noise, air pollution, water vapour contrails and cirrus clouds.

 

Readers' comments (2)

  • By 2050 we'll have to exist within a tiny carbon budget. It takes gigantic amounts of carbon to support a job associated - directly or indirectly - with aviation. The more of our carbon budget we devote to aviation, the less jobs there will be - unless we accept going back to the land to enable the rich to continue flying. If aviation continues expanding, carbon trading will end up forcing jobs & industiries to be outsourced to china where they'll rely on coal based electricity for manufacturing and even more energy to bring (fly?) the goods back again. (So we'll need to keep expanding the airports even more.)
    On top of all this, bearing in mind the current forecasts regarding oil availability and cost, what are we doing pinning our future on oil dependant economic development?
    Do we seriously expect the public to trust us to guide them towards the delivery of a low carbon future when we're putting out these messages?
    Rethinking Avaition needs a rethink.

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  • Whilst I understand Mr Weight's concerns, it should be borne in mind that the demand for air travel in any country is directly linked to the well being of any country's economy and the general population's expected standard of living (which the Government could reduce if everyone is in agreement). It follows that a healthy economy needs aviation and aviation needs a healthy economy. The link is well studied and well proven. It is therefore incorrect to assume that "more of our carbon budget we devote to aviation, the less jobs there will be". In fact, it is more likely to be to the contrary, but that will very much depend upon how future legislation and policy is drafted and how broadly embraced it is and how effectively it is enforced.

    Rethinking Aviation is in fact a document that neither promotes nor denigrates air travel, but is more about how we look to deal with it. For many years there has been a growing demand for air travel, and notwithstanding some fluctuations, that demand remains today, and all the evidence points to a growing demand in the future. As engineers and planners what we have to do is deal with it in the most sustainable way. This is not an easy task, but the ICE should be commended in attempting to work out how best to do so.

    [Please note that these are my own personal views and opinions and therefore they should not be taken as being the views of any particular company or organisation]

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