The future of aviation - Transport Committee Contents

4  The environment

Climate change

54. One point on which virtually all of our witnesses agreed was that the aviation industry must find ways to operate within the context of global reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Beyond the immediate problems of the economic recession and security threats, reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and other climate change impacts from aviation is the greatest challenge facing the aviation industry.[65]

55. Although aviation currently contributes only some 5% of UK greenhouse gas emissions, the Committee on Climate Change estimates that, by 2050, this might rise to 25%.[66] Although international aviation emissions were not included in the Kyoto Protocol, Lord Adonis has made it clear that the Government will be pressing for both international aviation and shipping to be included in any new deal agreed at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change conference to be held in Copenhagen in December 2009.[67] The UK has also, uniquely, passed domestic legislation (the Climate Change Act 2008) that binds it to an 80% cut in CO2 emissions by 2050, with an interim milestone of at least 26% by 2020. It has also established binding carbon budgets to ensure that these targets are met. International aviation and international shipping are not included in the carbon budgets because of the complexities relating to the methodologies by which emissions might be allocated. Nonetheless, Lord Turner made clear to us that, as far as the Committee on Climate Change is concerned, the UK's share of international aviation and shipping emissions will have to be accounted for within the UK's carbon budget.[68]

56. Mr Keith Mans, Chief Executive of the Royal Aeronautical Society, emphasised how the industry had risen to many technical challenges over the past century and would do so again in the future. He believed that the aviation industry could square the circle of tripling passenger numbers whilst reducing CO2 emissions.[69] The aviation industry's vision for a lower-carbon aviation industry is set out in the Sustainable Aviation CO2 Roadmap (an industry-sponsored report). This anticipates that, with improved technology (new aircraft engines and airframes), more efficient air traffic management,[70] the use of biofuels and other measures, CO2 emissions can be reduced to 2000 levels by 2050 while passenger numbers grow by a factor of three.[71]

57. Our meetings with aviation industry representatives in the USA brought home to us the extent to which the industry is relying on sustainable biofuels to reduce CO2 emissions from aviation in the medium term. Purchasing carbon offsets is also expected to be significant over this period. Whilst some emissions savings will result from new aircraft, the recession and poor credit ratings of airlines are making fleet replacement more difficult. On past experience, it would take at least 15 years and probably much longer to replace most of the world's jet airliner fleet.[72]

58. The extent and timeliness with which such large reductions in CO2 emissions from aviation could, or would, be implemented was challenged by a number of environmental organisations. The WWF-UK described the Sustainable Aviation CO2 Roadmap as a "techno fantasy".[73] In its view, the technologies are unproven and the incentives to adopt them are insufficient. The Environment Agency expressed similar views, if less forcefully.[74]

59. It is clear that, whatever the debate about the science of climate change, reducing greenhouse gas emissions has to be a fundamental part of the aviation industry's business plan—a point freely acknowledged by airline representatives: "[…] we recognise that global warming and climate change is a major issue and aviation, like every other industry, needs to be playing its part."[75] Whilst strongly supporting emissions trading, Mr Harrison of easyJet, said that more stringent environmental standards should be set within Europe so that older or less fuel-efficient aircraft are taken out of service more quickly.[76] Mr Ridgway of Virgin Atlantic, whilst enthusiastic about employing the latest technology, pointed out the financial difficulties of investing in low-emission aircraft at present:

I think we are in a potentially difficult place coming out of the recession and with the meltdown in the financial system and I think, going forward, the financing of [new, more fuel-efficient] aircraft is potentially going to be quite difficult.[77]

60. The concept of sustainable aviation has been studied by the OMEGA, a consortium managed through Manchester Metropolitan University, examining possible solutions for a 'greener' aviation future. Their conclusion, based on some 40 technical studies, is that technology may provide the means to mitigate some of air transport's environmental externalities but that human behavioural change is also necessary.

61. Clearly, there is potential for improvements in technology, fuels and management systems that would reduce the carbon intensity of aviation. It remains questionable, however, to what extent this can be achieved, and what the timeframe and the drivers of progress would be. Various technological developments have been proposed—for example, open rotors, geared turbofans and biofuels—but no immediate consensus on what might provide a step-change in emissions has not, as yet, emerged. Some of the more fuel-efficient engine technologies, such as open-rotor engines, make it harder to achieve reduced noise levels. There are also many questions regarding the sustainability of using biofuels on a global scale.[78] The December 2009 Report of the Committee on Climate Change will be important in this respect (see below).

EU Emissions Trading Scheme

62. The Government has set out its approach to tackling the problem of containing emissions whilst passenger numbers grow:

a)  International flights using UK airports will be required to become part of the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS) from 2012, and

b)  The total emissions from aviation in 2050 must be no higher than in 2005.[79]

63. Carbon trading is, in theory, a fair and cost-effective mechanism for reducing emissions. The purpose of carbon trading is to limit emissions in the traded sectors and to create a price for carbon which gives incentives to industry and others to invest in low carbon processes. The National Audit Office has concluded, however, that EU ETS Phases 1 and 2 were ineffective in reducing carbon emissions beyond what would have occurred anyway.[80] Carbon trading has had less impact on reducing emissions than intended due to:

a)  The emission caps being set too high;

b)  Options to purchase carbon credits from outside the scheme, and

c)  Initial allowances being too generous.[81]

64. The National Audit Office is cautious about expecting too much from EU ETS Phase 3, which will include aviation. A number of our witnesses were similarly concerned about reliance on EU ETS to reduce aviation emissions. The Environment Agency lists a number of potential weaknesses in the EU ETS mechanism for aviation, such as the fact that EU ETS includes only CO2 and not other greenhouse gases. It is also concerned that the mechanism will not influence the long-term price for carbon.[82] The current carbon price[83] of around £11.68 (€13) [84] per tonne of CO2 is not considered sufficiently high to provide the incentive to the aviation industry to invest the substantial sums that will be required to achieve significant emissions reduction.[85] WWF-UK warned that the EU ETS was liable to be weakened by economic and political self-interests."[86] A further issue for the UK is that making the EU ETS the principal driver for reducing aviation emissions potentially removes aviation from UK Government influence.

65. The airlines are relatively supportive of emissions trading. Mr Ridgway of Virgin Atlantic said: "It will be an extra cost but it is an opportunity for airlines, and it incentivises airlines to make sure they are employing and deploying the best and newest technology."[87] It is clear, however, that the airlines are seeking some trade off between EU ETS and Air Passenger Duty (APD). "[…] if aviation is brought into a global emissions scheme, then things like APD would no longer have a place."[88]


66. The Government has asked the Committee on Climate Change to advise it on these matters. Lord Turner, Chairman of the Committee, explained to us the detailed modelling work that was being undertaken, and how the Committee on Climate Change would report in December 2009. On the fundamental issue of whether the projected growth in passenger numbers was compatible with the Climate Change Act and with an 80% cut in UK emissions, Lord Turner said "[…] it is not completely incredible". This would require emissions reductions of 90% or more in non-aviation sectors to offset a lower level of reduction in aviation emission.[89]

67. Some of the thinking of the Committee on Climate Change can be seen in the letter from Lord Turner to the Secretaries of State for Transport and Energy and Climate Change, regarding the December 2009 Copenhagen conference. The Committee accepts that emissions trading is a useful and economically efficient mechanism for reducing carbon emissions from aviation "for an interim period […] subject to the caveat that the carbon price in any trading scheme should provide strong signals for appropriate demand management and supply side innovation."[90]

68. Reducing the carbon emissions from aviation is crucial both to the success of climate change policies and to the future of aviation. The aviation industry believes that it can rise to the technological challenge but this will happen only if appropriate 'sticks and carrots' are in place. The work of the Committee on Climate Change, due for publication in December 2009, is likely to be crucial in helping to determine what is feasible and how it might sensibly be achieved. It would be wrong for us to try to second-guess or prescribe the outcomes. We believe the following principles should apply to future UK policy on aviation emissions:

a)  aviation and climate change are global in nature, and global solutions are the only realistic response;

b)  aviation should be treated equitably in climate change policyit should not be demonised or assigned symbolic value beyond its true impacts, and

c)  carbon reduction measures should be cost-effective and take account of the economic value of aviation.

69. We are concerned that the EU Emissions Trading Scheme has an appalling track record and that it may prove insufficient to drive investment in low-carbon aviation, especially in these difficult economic times. We await with interest the forthcoming advice of the Committee on Climate Change to the Government on these issues.

Local environmental impacts

70. The Air Transport White Paper 2003 noted that:

One of the features of air travel is that while many of the benefits are spread across society as a whole, many of the adverse impacts are distributed unevenly. People living near airports have to live with the immediate effects of aircraft noise, air quality problems and increased congestion on local roads. Urbanisation sometimes associated with airport development can also have adverse impacts on landscape and habitats. Action can be taken to mitigate these adverse effects, but it is seldom possible to eliminate them altogether.[91]

71. Whereas a great deal of attention has focused recently on the climate change effects of aviation, less attention has perhaps been paid to the impacts on people and their local environments. We received written evidence from a number of organisations concerned about the local environmental impacts of airport expansion, particularly at Heathrow, but also at Gatwick, Stansted and Bristol airports.

72. London Councils believes that the noise and air quality impacts, and the impact on the health and quality of life of the people affected, "have not been given proper attention by the Government." Moreover, they point out that:

The impact of aviation is not just restricted to those who live within close proximity to airports. In London, for example, large parts of the capital, even those located several miles away from the main airports experience noise disturbance from aircraft taking off, landing and overflying.[92]


73. According to ICAO, aircraft noise is "the most significant cause of adverse community reaction to the operation and expansion of airports."[93] Aircraft landing and taking off are the chief sources of aviation noise. However, it is apparent that the mix and types of aircraft, the frequency of overflight, as well as the social and economic circumstances of the people affected are all factors influencing the degree to which communities perceive aircraft noise as problematic.

74. Noise levels from individual aircraft have diminished by as much as 70% per aircraft since the early jets. The international standard is set by ICAO (currently 'Chapter 4' which came into effect in January 2006) and substantial gains have been achieved. Nevertheless, the gains have been offset by the growth in air traffic which have made noise a constant, as opposed to a periodic event in some areas. Dealing with noise is a particular issue for airport authorities in relation to their local communities. In some cases, local communities and airport authorities have made local agreements, for example, on the number or types of day and night flights.

75. The Government uses 57dB(a) as the level above which aircraft noise is considered to create "community annoyance".[94] Approximately 260,000 people are within the Heathrow 57dBA noise contour.[95] Recognising that the relationship between aircraft noise and community annoyance is complex and might have changed since its previous assessment,[96] the Government commissioned a major study—Attitudes to Noise from Aviation Sources in England (ANASE), published in 2007.

76. The 2M Group, representing 23 councils in London and the southeast opposed to Heathrow expansion, is particularly concerned about aircraft noise. The group, like others,[97] is critical of the Government's management of the ANASE study which was expected to provide a new framework for assessing the impacts of aircraft noise. It believes the Government's rejection of the ANASE findings will lead to an undervaluation of the true impacts and costs of noise.[98]

77. Concerns about the way that the Department for Transport assesses the impacts of aircraft noise and compensates residents are expressed by others also. The Stanwell Moor Residents Group, for example, contends that the technical hurdles for compensation are arbitrary and that the levels of compensation paid are inadequate.[99]

78. Noise is not simply a nuisance. Studies by Dr Lars Jarup of Imperial College, London found a "clear exposure response relationship between aircraft noise during the night and the prevalence of high blood pressure. The effects are both short and long term." High blood pressure has adverse health implications.[100]

79. One of the dilemmas for future aircraft engine design is that it is difficult to optimise both noise reduction and CO2 reduction in the same engine and industry needs guidance from international bodies as to where it should focus its efforts.[101] We were encouraged by what we heard from the American Association of Aerospace Industries on the potential noise and emissions savings of some new technologies, such as geared turbofan engines.[102] But there is clearly a long way to go before aircraft noise ceases to be a problem.

80. We addressed some of the issues of aircraft noise in our recent Report The use of airspace, particularly in relation to tranquil areas such as national parks and Areas Of Outstanding Natural Beauty. We recommended that the Department for Transport and the CAA should examine the case for maximum limits on noise levels and aircraft numbers over sensitive natural areas.[103]

81. Aircraft noise is a nuisance to a large number of people, which detracts from their quality of life and presents health hazards which are not fully understood. It should be remembered that, as aviation has grown, planes have become quieter and noise levels have reduced for millions of people. The Government must act decisively to ensure that older, noisier aircraft are taken out of use as soon as possible. This should be achieved firstly by seeking to influence international noise standards (set by the International Civil Aviation Organization) and secondly through guidance to local airports.

82. The Government needs to revisit its procedures for assessing the impacts of aircraft noise, the compensation arrangements and the effective enforcement of noise regulations. The Government should also review the adequacy of research into the effects of aircraft noise, particularly on human health.


83. Poor air quality is the other main local environmental impact associated with airports. The Environment Agency told us that

The main pollutants of interest arising from aviation and associated road transport are oxides of nitrogen and particulate matter. Oxides of nitrogen contribute to acid rain and interact with hydrocarbons to produce ground-level ozone which can affect human health and vegetation, including crops. Small particles (usually referred to as PM10) can cause cardiovascular problems.

To put the issue into perspective, the emissions from Heathrow are broadly comparable with those of a major industrial installation. Whereas major industrial sources are regulated by the Environment Agency, airports and aviation are not.[104]

84. It is important to bear in mind that only a minority of the air pollution associated with airports comes from the aircraft. Approximately one third of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions around airports are attributable to airport operations, one third to road traffic and the remainder to wider background sources such as industry and domestic heating. These figures vary substantially according to the exact location.[105]

85. London has the worst air pollution levels in the UK and is among the worst in Europe.[106] The Environment Agency states that NO2 concentrations in the vicinity of Heathrow are likely to continue to exceed the EU air quality limit of 40 micrograms per cubic metre (µg/m3) by 2010 when compliance with the limit is required. The Government has announced that it plans to apply for permission to defer compliance until 2015 for a number of areas across the country, including Heathrow.[107] As part of its January 2009 announcement on Heathrow expansion, the Government will give the Environment Agency a new legal duty and powers to enforce air quality limits around Heathrow. The Environment Agency told us that it welcomes this new role and "will make sure these limits are rigorously enforced".[108]

86. As EU standards for motor vehicle emissions are raised and the UK vehicle fleet becomes cleaner, there is likely to be a reduction in air pollutants from airport traffic. The Government predicts that, "even on conservative assumptions" the area around Heathrow will comply with EU air quality standards by 2020.[109] A shift to electric vehicles would further improve air quality. Over the timescale of the Air Transport White Paper—to 2030—these changes could be significant. However, future improvements in air quality cannot be taken for granted and it is of concern that the UK is unlikely to be able to meet EU air quality standards until 2015, instead of the target date of 2010.

87. We urge the Government, in partnership with airports and airlines, to bring forward measures to improve air quality around our major airports. The pollutants come from a variety of sources, including aircraft, airport traffic and background sources. The Environment Agency has techniques to assess the air quality impacts for major airport developments and we recommend that the Government and airport developers take full advantage of these.

65   Aviation's principal contributions to climate change result from emissions of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides (NOx), water vapour (contrails), particulates (soot ands sulphate particles) an certain other compounds. The impact of these emissions is increased because they are released at altitude-an effect known as 'radiative forcing'. See Ev 140.  Back

66   Letter from Lord Turner, Chairman of the Committee on Climate Change, to the Secretaries of State for Transport and Energy and Climate Change, 9 September 2009. Back

67   Department for Transport, Low Carbon Transport: a Greener Future, Cm 7682, July 2009 Back

68   Q 48 Back

69   Q 39 Back

70   We recently examined this in depth in Transport Committee, Fifth Report of Session 2008-09, The use of airspace, HC 163. Back

71 Back

72   Annex 1 Back

73   Ev 168. WWF-UK was formerly the World-Wide Fund for Nature. Back

74   Q 80 [Dr Grayling] Back

75   Q 320 [Mr Harrison] Back

76   Q 320  Back

77   Q 346 Back

78   Environmental Audit Committee, First Report of Session 2007-08, Are biofuels sustainable?, HC 76 Back

79   HC Deb, 15 January 2009, cols 357-358 Back

80   EU ETS Phase 2 runs for five years from 2008 to 2012 inclusive, concurrently with the Kyoto protocol commitment period. Phase 2 increased the scope of installations included and introduced the facility to 'bank' carbon credits. From 2011 it includes flights within the EU and, from 2012, all flights leaving or landing in the EU. Phase 3 will run from 2013 to 2020. It will have a declining emissions cap (21% reduction in 2020 compared with 2005) and a substantial increase in the proportion of permits that are auctioned.  Back

81   National Audit Office, Briefing for the Environmental Audit Committee - European Union Emissions Trading Scheme: A review by the National Audit Office, April 2009  Back

82   Ev 140 Back

83 Back

84   The carbon price is normally quoted in Euros, and at the time of publication, the market price was €13. At the Interbank rate monthly average (0.89830) for November 2009, this is equivalent to £11.68.  Back

85   The Tyndall Centre estimates that a carbon price of €100 to €300 per tonne is required. Back

86   Q 290 [Mr Lockley] Back

87   Q 318 Back

88   Q 319 Back

89   Qq 50-52 Back

90   Letter from Lord Turner, Chairman of the Committee on Climate Change, to the Secretaries of State for Transport and Energy and Climate Change, 9 September 2009. Back

91   Department for Transport, The Future of Air Transport, Cm 6046, December 2003, p29 Back

92   Ev 344. London Councils is a statutory joint committee representing all 32 London boroughs and the City of London. Back

93   International Civil Aviation Organization, Environmental Report 2007 Back

94   Noise is measured on the decibel scale. 0dB is the threshold of human hearing, 50dB is around the level of a normal conversation and 140dB is the threshold of pain. A 3dB increase is equal to a doubling in sound pressure but will only just be noticed by a human. 10dB equates to a doubling in the perceived loudness. Aircraft noise is measured with reference to the A-weighted decibel scale, dB(A). The A-weighting reflects the fact that the human ear does not detect all frequencies of sound equally efficiently. Back

95   Department for Transport, Adding capacity at Heathrow, Impact Assessment, January 2009, p 17. According to The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, "Aircraft noise already has the potential to affect the quality of life for at least half a million people in the UK - with 80% of those living close to major airports in the southeast of England." (Aircraft Noise, POSTnote 197, June 2003) Back

96   CAA, DR Report 8402: United Kingdom Aircraft Noise Index Study, 1985 Back

97   Ev 210 Back

98   Ev 336 Back

99   Ev 458 Back

100   Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, Imperial College, London Back

101   Q 37 [Mr Mans] Back

102   Annex 1 Back

103   Fifth Report of Session 2008-09, The use of airspace, HC 163 Back

104   Ev 140 Back

105   Figures based on Heathrow airport. See Ev 140-143 Back

106   London Assembly Government, Every Breath You Take, May 2009  Back

107   Ev 119 Back

108   Environment 140 Back

109   Department for Transport, Britain's Transport Infrastructure. Adding capacity at Heathrow: Decisions Following Consultation, January 2009 Back

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