Environmental concerns slow down airport expansion

The contribution flying makes to climate change is finally starting to slow down plans to expand a number of airports across Europe. Two recent decisions in particular – one in Vienna, the other in London – suggest that commitments to reducing climate changing gases are causing rethinks over the growth of airports.

The decision on 17 February by Austria’s federal administrative court to reject the proposed third runway at Vienna airport is perhaps the more significant. The court’s decision was made on the basis that the proposed increase in flight capacity would add up to 2% to Austria’s total greenhouse gas emissions. The decision is likely to be appealed in a higher court.

Markus Gansterer of T&E’s Austrian member VCÖ said: ‘The decision of the court makes one thing clear: from now on, infrastructure projects must be in step with the climate goals Austria has set itself. Supporters of the new runway criticised the court for getting involved in political matters, but the climate targets had been set politically and are now law. With none of the greenhouse-gas-emitting sectors willing to take the necessary action, the court felt it had to defend Austria’s ability to meet its legal obligations, and therefore rejected the expansion of the airport.’

The case sets a precedent that other airports will be watching out for, and the pressure group FT Watch is having the judgement translated into English so other campaigners can use it. With the targets set in the Paris climate accord effectively necessitating no overall increases in greenhouse gases, the idea of courts rejecting projects on climate grounds seems logical in countries which have signed up to the accord. In addition, opponents of the third Vienna runway say the need for more capacity to allow for more flights is overstated, as larger planes are meeting demand without the need for new runways.

The saga of another third runway, this one at London’s Heathrow airport, has added another chapter in the past month. In October the British government announced it was going ahead with the third Heathrow runway, but the move is subject to a legislative package that will take several more months to be completed and is not guaranteed to succeed.

The Davies Commission (the government committee that recommended the third runway) said it could be built at Heathrow without undermining the British commitment to restore greenhouse gases to their 2005 level by 2050, but only if capacity at regional airports in the UK – in other words outside south-east England – does not expand more than currently anticipated. However, some regional politicians are keen to expand regional airports, and some campaigners fear the 2005/2050 target may be watered down.

In November a committee of MPs said Heathrow’s third runway could only be legal if there were drastic cuts in emissions in other sectors, and in February another parliament committee said the British government was not doing enough to reduce the environmental impact of a third runway. The airport has responded by publishing a plan to make all the new flights carbon-neutral. The sustainability plan, entitled ‘Heathrow 2.0’ and launched on 28 February, envisages carbon-offsetting and restoring peatlands, but it has been criticised by environmentalists and MPs for being too short-term and for its reliance on off-setting, a climate tool which has rarely proven effective.

John Stewart of T&E’s member Hacan, which campaigns for improved noise and air quality levels at Heathrow, said: ‘The pressure to build a third runway appears to have grown since the UK voted to leave the EU. The runway is quoted so much as being critical to the UK economy post-Brexit that this is arguably the main reason now driving it.

‘This has led to a dilemma among environmental campaigners about whether to back Davies on climate change. Taken all together, Davies was robust on the environment, saying this should be the final expansion at Heathrow and making it clear how greenhouse gases should be limited. Some campaigners have questioned his assumptions about the environment, but campaigners are being forced to face the question whether it might indeed be possible to build a new runway and stay with the UK’s carbon limits.’

There are currently airport expansion plans at a number of airports around Europe where environmental factors (be they noise, air quality or climate) could play a part, notably Düsseldorf in Germany and Dublin in Ireland. There is also the proposed new airport in Nantes (west of Paris) which is an issue in this spring’s French presidential election.

T&E aviation manager Andrew Murphy said: ‘It’s not just member states who are promoting airport expansion, but also European institutions which should be promoting a low-carbon economy. Earlier this month the European Investment Bank announced funding for airport expansion, this time Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport. Expansion of Europe’s already saturated aviation market is not compatible with our climate goals.’