Airplane near the terminal in an airport at the sunset

Airports vs the Climate – how does the law rule in Europe? Episode 3

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 3.

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.

Heathrow’s third runway

With 78 millions passengers in 2017, Heathrow airport is one of Europe’s biggest and busiest airports.

To manage the growing flux of travellers, a plan to expand the airport and to construct a third runway was proposed in 2015.

Immediately concerns regarding the effect it would have on air quality and more globally on climate change emerged.

The airport’s expansion plans have been regularly criticised by ClientEarth. The environmental law group has argued that the National Policy Statement issued by the government failed to prove that air quality targets would be respected in the area if the construction was to be carried on.

Following the same path, Greenpeace revealed that according to documents published by the UK government, if a third runway was to be constructed it is likely to break air pollution laws.

This also echoed an independent Impact Assessment commissioned by the UK government carried out in February 2017, which concluded that a third runway would threaten air pollution limits in the area.

In the meantime, a 10-week consultation launched on 17th January 2018 and running until 28th March 2018 was conducted. This part of Impact Assessment is essential to ensure transparency and public participation.

However the results were not available at the time of the Parliament’s decision in June 2018, which authorised the construction of the third runway. By the end of August the results were still not published.

Following the decision of the Parliament, the Royal Borough and councils of Hillingdon, Wandsworth, Richmond, plus Hammersmith and Fulham are starting proceedings in the High Court against the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Michael Gove. This is being followed by Greenpeace, the Mayor of London and Friends of the Earth UK. A decision on whether or not there will be a full hearing is expected by the autumn.