Aviation is one of the fastest growing global sources of emissions. If the UK upholds its commitment to help limit temperature rises to 1.5C, then aviation could make up half of the UK’s remaining carbon budget by 2050. And as we know, climate change is the greatest long-term threat to wildlife. New airports or runways would worsen this situation, potentially placing an unrealistic burden on other sectors of the economy to reduce their emissions. That’s why it’s of great concern to us that the UK Government is pressing ahead with plans for a new runway in the southeast of England, without properly considering the fact that this will probably seriously jeopardise the UK’s ability to meet its legally binding emissions reduction targets. 

Therefore, the RSPB has submitted its response to the UK Government’s consultation on a draft National Policy Statement (NPS) for a new runway in the southeast of England. The NPS follows the Government’s announcement of its preference for a new runway at Heathrow, and paves the way for planning applications for a new runway to come forward, after a vote in Parliament later this year. The NPS sets out the principles and planning requirements that any new runway would have to meet and assesses the potential environmental, health and other risks of new airport infrastructure in the southeast of England.

We have two key concerns about the draft NPS and about new airport infrastructure:

The Government has published the draft NPS without explaining how it will limit aviation emissions

The Committee on Climate Change has previously recommended that greenhouse gas emissions from UK aviation should be limited to their 2005 levels by 2050 (37.5 MtCO2), in order for aviation emissions to remain compatible with the UK’s carbon budgets. This would require limiting growth in aviation demand to 60%. But analysis by the Airports Commission, an independent body that advised the UK Government, showed that a new runway in the southeast of England would result in emissions that would breach these limits.

The Committee on Climate Change asked the UK Government to produce a framework for dealing with greenhouse gas emissions from aviation. No such framework was produced before this draft NPS was published. This framework could have explained how measures to limit aviation emissions might be funded or might function. Without this framework there is no plan for making sure that aviation emissions won’t breach the UK’s legally binding carbon budgets.

To publish the draft NPS without this framework for limiting emissions is putting the cart before the horse. As it stands, the draft NPS is not fit for its purpose of making decisions about new airport infrastructure. The NPS should be redrafted only after such a framework has been produced.

The RSPB is opposed to any new airport infrastructure in the UK, in the southeast of England or elsewhere, unless it can be shown that it could be compatible with the UK’s carbon budgets.

Biodiversity impacts

The draft NPS highlights potential impacts on biodiversity near to the location of a new runway, which the RSPB is very concerned about. The Heathrow Northwest Runway scheme in particular could have direct and indirect impacts on nearby reservoirs and waterbodies that are designated for wildlife.

Notwithstanding the RSPB’s concerns about climate change, any application for a new runway that comes forward will need to be accompanied by a formal assessment of these biodiversity impacts and whether and how they could be addressed.