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Is Bristol Airport Big Enough?

By staff - Safe Landing, January 31, 2023

Today, the UK High Court has ruled that the expansion of Bristol Airport will be allowed to go ahead, in the latest twist in a rollercoaster legal campaign featuring tough local opposition and environmental scrutiny.

In 2018, Bristol Airport submitted plans to expand from 10 to 12 million passengers per year. This would result in an extra 23,800 flights, including an extra 4,000 night flights.

After North Somerset Council declared a climate emergency in 2019, planning permission for expanding the airport was refused in February 2020. Later that year, Bristol Airport announced that it would be appealing this decision and requested an inquiry, led by a planning inspector.

Bristol Airport Action Network (BAAN) was formed as a coalition of local groups and individuals working to oppose Bristol Airport’s expansion plans. BAAN became a Rule 6 party and was a significant contributor to the 10-week Public Inquiry which ended in October 2021.

They enlisted Safe Landing Co-Founder, Finlay Asher, to provide expert evidence during the inquiry.

Finlay’s evidence centred around the limits of technology to mitigate the increase in carbon emissions expected as a result of the increased air traffic from the expansion. He argued that the aircraft efficiency improvements and contribution of so-called “Sustainable Aviation Fuels” (SAF) assumed by the airport in their calculations were overly-optimistic and wouldn’t in themselves prevent emissions from increasing. He also noted that so-called “Zero Emissions” (hydrogen or electric) aircraft mentioned in the airports’ sustainability plans will take many decades to design, develop, certify and then produce — meaning they won’t be available at sufficient scale and quantity for decarbonisation any time soon. He also pointed out, as per Safe Landing’s response to the consultation on Luton Airport Expansion, that the airport expansion was likely to be incompatible with such aircraft anyway — due to significantly different aircraft characteristics (size, payload, range, speed) and re-fuelling requirements. ‘Business-as-usual’ expansion of existing airport infrastructure, would therefore be a high-risk investment when we should rather be looking to transform our infrastructure to make it future-fit.

Interestingly, this evidence went largely unchallenged during the cross-examination by Bristol Airport’s barrister — with the debate instead circling around the (weak) policy measures that could be used to control emissions.

The detailed and dry exchanges inside the Public Inquiry were in contrast to the dynamic and colourful climate protests taking place outside the Town Hall in Weston-Supermare where the inquiry was being held. These added significant drama to proceedings and a sense of historical importance as it was clear that any decision could set a game-changing precedent for the 19 or so other regional airports around the UK that are also contemplating expansion.

Climate campaigners lead energetic demonstrations outside the Weston-Supermare town hall

In February 2022, to the despair of BAAN, and the various local climate justice groups involved in the demonstrations, the Planning Inspectorate released their decision to uphold the Airport’s appeal. At the time, Safe Landing released the following response:

BAAN then mounted this latest appeal to the High Court, challenging the decision making process and arguing that the planning inspectors were wrong to ignore the impact a larger airport would have on climate change. The appeal was heard at the Bristol Civil Justice Centre in November 2022, with further vigorous protests taking place outside, including a ‘climate choir’ and speech from an aviation workers’ perspective by Finlay:

The latest judgement from the High Court isn’t the end of the road for BAAN, they hope to take it to the Court of Appeal to over-turn the decision. So let’s take a closer look at the main points of contention here…

Bristol Airport, claims:

  • it will become the first airport to reach “Net Zero” by 2030
  • it will “deliver sustainable growth”
  • aviation emissions are a matter for national government not for local planning authorities
  • the UK government has set a carbon budget, which it is legally-bound to meet, and has the appropriate policy measures (the UK Emissions Trading Scheme or ETS) in place to control emissions.
  • the expansion will create up to 5,000 new jobs, and the economic benefits outweigh or ‘balance’ other environmental concerns.

However, we argue that on the contrary:

  • The “Net Zero” claims relate to “airport operations” only e.g. the buildings and vehicles used within the airport — the emissions from the aircraft flights themselves are not included. We don’t want our industry to mislead the public in this way.
  • Even in the most optimistic projections (of aircraft technology and fuels), total aviation CO2 emissions from the airport will increase with this expansion, and non-CO2 emissions (which have an even greater global warming effect) have been ignored. This is against a backdrop where we need to halve our emissions globally by 2030 in order to secure a livable future.
  • While it would make sense for aviation emissions to be regulated at national level by the government — with a carbon budget, and allocation of that budget to airports around the country — this does *not* happen. The UK “Jet Zero” Strategy for aviation sets out that the government doesn’t believe it needs to intervene directly to limit aviation growth or cap demand, and will instead leave this up to local planning authorities.
  • The government do not have effective policy measures in place to control aviation emissions. The UK ETS still offers free allowances to airlines, which greatly reduces the effective carbon price. The scheme is also tied to other emissions e.g. the power sector — so if the carbon price was increased sufficiently to curtail air traffic demand, it would have a significant impact on the ability of others to pay their electricity bills. Furthermore, the UK ETS only applies to flights to Europe, and not the rest of the world where the even weaker CORSIA scheme is in place. This has no cap on emissions and features an incredibly low carbon price. In the scenario where the UK ETS carbon price was ratcheted-up, there is nothing in place to stop more airlines simply flying outside of Europe (and causing increased emissions per flight as they do so).
  • Safe and secure long-term employment relies on a credible path to reduce total aviation emissions. Bristol Airport’s expansion plans fail to do that, so actively represent a threat to workers as any growth in jobs will not be viable in the medium-term. There is a high risk of stranded-assets due to overcapacity in a future scenario where we need to fly less.

These concerns are shared by the trade union PCS (south west regional committee) which has resolved to oppose the expansion of Bristol Airport on environmental grounds.

If our concerns about over-capacity are true, then why would investors be fighting so hard to spend money on expansion? Well, Bristol Airport is owned by Ontario Teachers Pension Plan — if they expand the airport capacity, they will increase the short-term value of their asset and perhaps will soon be able to sell their shares on at a greater value. They don’t necessarily care about long-term economic outcomes.

However, as aviation workers who will still be employed in the 2030s and 2040s, we demand our leaders be honest about the impact of aviation and have credible plans to reduce total emissions with time. If they do not do this, then our future jobs and incomes are built on sand.

We need government to take this matter seriously and regulate our industry properly. However, while local authorities believe that aviation emissions are a matter for national government, the UK Government states that airport expansion decisions are a matter for local planning authorities. This buck passing has to stop. Reducing total emissions is everybody’s responsibility. We need to see accountability in addressing the black hole in our aviation strategy, left by the failure to consider demand management & capacity constraints:

We’re concerned that if airport expansion goes ahead, it will waste significant financial resources and time. We should instead pause expansion plans until there is more certainty regarding the future of aviation, and in the meantime direct efforts towards future-proofing the airport, airlines and associated jobs, for the necessary transformation of air travel. Read more about that on our website:

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author.

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