Airports vs the Climate – How does the law rule in Europe? Episode 1

Airports all over Europe are under construction, renovation, and expansion. But the impact of this infrastructure on the climate are enormous. In this series, META looks at airports at the centre of the battle to protect our climate. This is episode 1.

According to Transport & Environment, aviation is one of the fastest growing sources of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and is responsible for an estimated 4.9% of man-made global warming.

At the European level, the EU Emission Trading Scheme (ETS) sets rules for aviation for all European flights as well as those coming to and leaving the EU. A taxation was at one point considered, but because of protest and resistance from airlines/carriers outside the EU, it was decided to pause the incoming and outgoing flights requirement to pay, this is called “stop the clock”.

As no real regulation has been put on global air traffic, carefully assessing the construction of new airports or extension of existing ones is the best way we have to control CO2 emissions from aviation.

Global CO2 emissions from air traffic are expected to rise up to 22% of total CO2 emissions by 2050.

Airport related projects are regulated by European laws and Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) or Strategic Environmental Assessment are required. EIA and SEA are an assessment of how a project will impact the environment.

Vienna’s third runway – Austria

Vienna’s controversial third runway project started in 1990s. Concerns regarding air and noise quality and climate change quickly emerged.

To manage these concerns, a mediation process was established – carried out from 2000 to 2005. But the outcome of the mediation didn’t satisfy all parties and citizen’s groups, regional groups of the Green Party and conservative groups continued their work against the construction.

The link to climate change was brought by national NGOs like Friends of the Earth Austria (Global2000) and the VCÖ, a member of the European NGO group Transport and Environment.

The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) procedure formerly started in 2011. It led to a first decision in favour of the runway that was followed by an appeal by cititzen.

In February 2017, after more negotiation and experts got involved, the Austria’s Federal Administrative Court took the decision to block the construction of the third runway on the basis of climate change.

This decision was the first of its kind in the world.

Their ruling concluded that the project was not in the public interest because it was only promoting short term economic growth, and they took into account the regional and national laws, the commitment Austria has towards the EU and towards the Paris Agreement. This decision was hailed by environmental groups.

But the case was then referred to Austria’s Federal Constitutional Court and it ruled otherwise. The Constitutional Court found that climate change was not mentioned in laws that relate to the construction of the third runway.

Currently, the case is going back to Austria’s federal Administration Court and a new decision will have to be made without taking climate change into consideration.

This case reflects the difficulty in taking climate change into account. It is an established fact that that climate change is affecting us and that we should act to prevent it. If Austrian law is to keep up with the imperative to act decisively on climate then , commentators say, the next step will be an evolution of Austrian law.