Report claims climate change impacts at Southampton Airport could be almost twice as high as previously claimed

The climate impact of the planned Southampton Airport expansion could be almost twice as high as its proponents claim, according to research from the New Economics Foundation (NEF). The report finds that the scheme is likely to account for an increase in annual airport-level emissions of up to 654,000 tonnes of CO2 and CO2-equivalent emissions in 2035, the year of the government’s new climate target. This is equivalent to putting around 360,000 additional cars on Britain’s roads.

The report looked at Southampton and three other airports seeking to expand: Leeds Bradford, Bristol and Stansted. It concluded that Southampton Airport’s estimate of the expansion plan’s climate impact is not credible because:
– It assumes the climate impact of non-CO2 emissions from aviation will be lower than indicated by the latest research
– It assumes that the aviation sector will be using currently undeveloped technologies to deliver rapid fuel-efficiency savings over the next few decades.
– It has not put a monetary value on the climate impacts of expansion. As a result, it hasn’t tested the potential impact of higher carbon prices in the future, and therefore has not followed the government’s own guidance.

The report claims Southampton Airport’s planning application ignored up to £2.6bn worth of potential damage to the climate. This damage comes through emission at high altitude of pollutants such as carbon dioxide, aerosols, nitrogen oxides, and water vapour. The majority of this cost will fall on the shoulders of wider society, either as social damage from climate breakdown or in the cost of other parts of the country having to accelerate their emissions reductions in order to meet the UK’s climate targets.

The report finds that none of the four airports provided credible estimates to decision makers of how their expansion schemes will affect the climate crisis and the cost of this impact. As a result they have overstated the economic case for expansion and understated how much harm they will cause.

The report recommends that, in the light of a lack of credible information in these airport expansion applications, the government should halt all active applications. It argues that any decisions on airport expansion should take into account the upcoming government aviation decarbonisation strategy, the government’s new target to cut emissions 78% by 2035, and the Committee on Climate Change’s recommendation for no net expansion in UK airports. In addition, the Department for Transport should make sure that any future airport expansion applications, including larger expansions at Gatwick, Luton and Heathrow, take into account the impact of non-CO2 emissions and the monetised cost of damage to the climate.

Alex Chapman, researcher at the New Economics Foundation, said: “The number of people flying in the UK has collapsed over the last year because of pandemic travel restrictions, and these numbers are not expected to recover until 2024 at the earliest. Despite this, seven UK airports are applying to get even bigger, and yet more airports are expected to submit new applications in the next few years. Last month the government set a new legal target to slash the UK’s emissions by 78% by 2035, for the first time including our international aviation emissions. Against this backdrop, we can’t allow airport expansion schemes to play down their impact on the climate crisis. Our report raises concerns about the quality of the information decision makers were provided with when considering expansion applications. The Secretary of State should step in and conduct an independent review of all of these proposals and their compatibility with the UK’s climate targets.”

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