The Airports Commission Report: Carbon Emissions, Air Quality and Noise Contents

Conclusions and recommendations


1.The Government has said it will set “a clear direction” on airport expansion by the end of the year. If the Government is minded to go ahead with the Commission’s recommendation, it is likely that this will be followed by a further period of consultation. The Government should use this period to address the recommendations in our report, before making a final decision on whether to go ahead with the scheme and seek the approval of Parliament through a National Policy Statement or Hybrid Bill. (Paragraph 4)

Carbon Emissions

2.The Government, when making a decision, will need to consider its carbon emissions mitigation against the full range of demand scenarios modelled by the Commission. (Paragraph 10)

3.The former Airports Commissioners told us they relied heavily on the work of the Committee on Climate Change when undertaking their work. They denied that their modelled carbon prices and policies were policy recommendations - feeling that the CCC were better placed to take on this role. Governments have in the past been reluctant to accept CCC policy recommendations on aviation. The Government cannot credibly rely on the Commission’s analysis as evidence that Heathrow expansion can be delivered within the limits set by the 2008 Act if this continues to be the case. We recommend that the Government give the CCC the opportunity to comment on the Commission’s forecasting of aviation emissions and the feasibility of its possible carbon policy scenarios. The Government should act on any recommendations they make. (Paragraph 14)

4.The Commission’s indicative carbon prices and policies were not intended as recommendations. Nonetheless, they give an indication of the scale of intervention likely to be required to bring aviation emissions within 2005 levels by 2050. Before making any decision on Heathrow expansion, the Government should publish an assessment of the likely impact on the aviation industry - particularly regional airports - and wider economy of measures to mitigate the likely level of additional emissions from Heathrow. (Paragraph 17)

5.The Government should consider developing a policy framework to advise industry about how to prioritise trade-offs between noise and carbon pollution when adopting biofuels thus giving guidance on priorities. (Paragraph 20)

6.The Commission, industry and Committee on Climate Change envisage biofuels playing a limited role in controlling aviation emissions. However, the use of biofuels is not without its own risks and uncertainties. The Government must either examine the options to encourage aviation to move to advanced fuels that are sustainable across their entire life cycle (including indirect land use change and impacts on food supplies) or identify ways in which corresponding emissions reductions will be achieved. (Paragraph 21)

7.The Government should set out its approach to the International Civil Aviation Organisation negotiations as the previous Government did ahead of the COP 21 negotiations in Paris. It will need to demonstrate either that the agreement it is seeking can incentivise the absolute carbon emission reductions required to meet the planning assumption or what measures it is prepared to take and to what timescale in order to make up the shortfall. (Paragraph 25)

8.There are some areas of the Commission’s work on operational and technological improvements that are still the subject of significant disagreement. We urge the Government to produce and publish its own thorough evaluation of the forecasts, including its assessment of whether take-up is likely to be sufficient without Government intervention. (Paragraph 28)

9.We draw four conclusions from the evidence we heard on carbon emissions. Firstly, because the planning assumption requires additional decarbonisation from other sectors, passenger growth in aviation cannot be seen in isolation from the progress on emissions reduction made by the rest of the economy. Secondly, the industry has taken steps to reduce its carbon emissions and, in areas such as fuel efficiency, market incentives are likely to ensure further progress. Thirdly, these measures in themselves are highly unlikely to achieve the planning assumption and further measures, including demand management, will be required. Finally, there is a significant gap between the theoretical models of how a mixture of these measures might allow the planning assumption to be met and the proposals currently on the domestic and international policy tables. (Paragraph 29)

10.We recommend that any Government decision on airport expansion should be accompanied by a package of measures to demonstrate a commitment to bringing emissions from international aviation within the economy-wide target set by the 2008 Act. They should also, as a minimum, commit to accepting the Committee on Climate Change’s advice on aviation in relation to the fifth carbon budget, introducing an effective policy framework to bring aviation emissions to 2005 levels by 2050 no later than autumn 2016 and pressing for the strongest possible international measures at the International Civil Aviation Organisation next year. (Paragraph 30)

Air Quality

11.Before the Government makes its decision, it should make its own assessment of the likely costs of preventing an adverse impact on health from expansion at Heathrow and publish it. (Paragraph 33)

12.Many of our witnesses interpreted the Commission’s interpretation of the Air Quality Directive as implying that significant increases in NO2 resulting from Heathrow expansion would be allowable because of worse performance elsewhere in London. This would make no sense in terms of protecting public health and wellbeing. The Government should make clear that this is not the position it intends to take when assessing the scheme for compliance with the Directive. (Paragraph 43)

13.Before the Government makes its decision, it will need to demonstrate that its revised air quality strategy can deliver compliance with legal pollution limits within the timescales agreed in the finalised plan to be approved by the European Commission. It will also need to show that this can be maintained even when the expanded airport is operating at full capacity. Heathrow’s existing air quality strategy should also be revised to meet the new targets. Failing this, Heathrow should not be allowed to expand. (Paragraph 47)

14.The Commission recommended that the release of capacity at an expanded airport should be conditional on air quality standards being met. The Government should not approve expansion at Heathrow until it has developed a robust framework for delivery and accountability. This should have binding, real-world milestones and balance the need for investor certainty with assurances that a successor Government cannot set the conditions aside if they become inconvenient. (Paragraph 50)

15.Disaggregating the impacts of Heathrow on local traffic, and therefore air quality, is complex and contested by the airport and the local authorities. The Government must establish clearly delineated responsibilities for meeting air quality limits before deciding to go ahead with the scheme. We foresee significant legal and commercial risks further down the line if this is not done, for example, if central Government tried to hold local authorities to account for a failure to meet the targets that they attributed to airport expansion or to penalise the airport for pollution that it attributed to background traffic. (Paragraph 53)

16.The aspiration of moving the majority of journeys to public transport with no increase in road traffic is shared by all. Transport for London told us this would require large-scale modal shift of the scale seen in central London over the last 15 years. However, there is no agreement between them and the Commission over the extent of infrastructure improvements required to achieve this, the resulting costs or, by implication, the extent to which individual parties would meet those costs. Before the Government decides to go ahead with Heathrow expansion it should set out its assessment of what would be required in terms of infrastructure improvements, agreed responsibilities for funding and milestones for completion. This should be part of a wider transport strategy for West London to minimise the risk of unintended consequences. The Government must make a binding commitment that Heathrow will fund the infrastructure improvements necessary to accommodate an expanded Heathrow. (Paragraph 61)


17.The Commission highlighted the inadequacy of relying purely on averages when measuring the impact of noise on communities. People living close to Heathrow do not experience noise from flights into and out of the airport as a constant decibel level throughout the day or night. So, although the measurement of average noise experienced provides a helpful snapshot of noise over a short period, and a useful historical comparison, it does not reflect a range of variables such as the type, height or engine power of an aircraft. Nor does it account for peak noise events. And, if it lacks detail, it may also ignore a swathe of people who are overflown infrequently but loudly. The Government, when assessing the noise impact of an expanded Heathrow, should do so against a full range of metrics and not just average noise experienced. These metrics need to be measured against international standards such as World Health Organisation recommendations and inform a change in Government policy on aviation noise. (Paragraph 67)

18.The Commission recommended the establishment of an Independent Aviation Noise Authority. This body will need a more up to date understanding of people’s attitudes to noise if it is to be credible. One of the first tasks of such a body should be to undertake a survey of people’s attitudes to aviation noise. The results of this survey should underpin both its own work and future Government policy on managing noise. In particular, they should form part of a piece of work to develop a set of metrics to assess noise impact. (Paragraph 73)

19.For residents around Heathrow, noise is a major part of their day to day lives. Understandably, they are deeply concerned about the impact of an expanded airport. The Government needs to demonstrate that, in assessing the case for expansion, it has based its decision on whether an expanded Heathrow would be noisier or less noisy than a two runway Heathrow at the same point in time - taking into account respite and the need for predicable relief from overflying. (Paragraph 81)

20.The Commission’s recommended ban on night flights was a key part of the package proposed by the Commission. The Government should publish a plan, including a series of binding milestones, to deliver the proposed ban as part of any announcement to proceed with expansion at Heathrow as recommended by the Commission. (Paragraph 84)

21.Levels of trust between Heathrow and the local community are an historical and enduring issue which has impaired effective community engagement. If the Government decides in favour of expansion it should put in place a framework to ensure that mitigating measures are introduced promptly. The Airports Commission also recommended the establishment of two bodies - an Independent Aviation Noise Authority and a Community Engagement Board - to address this. As part of the efforts to restore trust and effective community engagement, these should be introduced in the next year, even if the Government decides against Heathrow expansion. One of the first pieces of work for the Community Engagement Board should be to establish the extent to which commitments made at the time of Terminal 5 have been met. (Paragraph 88)


22.The Government should not approve Heathrow expansion until Heathrow ltd. can demonstrate that it accepts and will comply with the Airports Commission conditions, including a night flight ban, that it is committed to covering the costs of surface transport improvements; that it is possible to reconcile Heathrow expansion with legal air pollution limits, and that an expanded Heathrow would be less noisy than a two runway Heathrow. In each case - climate change, air quality and noise - it needs to set out concrete proposals for mitigation alongside clear responsibilities and milestones against which performance can be measured. It should report regularly to Parliament, through this Committee and others, on progress. The Government should not avoid or defer these issues. To do so would increase the risks of the project: delay through legal challenge, unquantifiable costs resulting from unclear responsibilities, economic risks through constraint of other sectors to meet increased aviation emissions and long-term costs to public health from the impact of air pollution and noise. (Paragraph 89)

© Parliamentary copyright 2015

Prepared 30 November 2015