Carbon clash: Manchester scenarios put airline emissions in the policy frame

In the face of carbon emissions scenarios generated by researchers in the School and Tyndall Manchester, plans to extend Heathrow and Stansted airports were shelved in 2010. The analysis provided key evidence that if air travel is allowed to increase unchecked it will soon have a carbon footprint larger than any other sector. Since publication of these findings, the aviation sector has been incorporated into national and international climate change policies such as the UK’s Climate Change Act and the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme.

Long haul flights, business trips and 'jet-setting' holidays have heavy carbon footprints. Today it is no secret that air travel pollutes the environment, but less than a decade ago, it was generally believed that flying only contributed a small proportion of an individual's carbon footprint. This view was overturned when researchers from Tyndall Manchester drew attention to the carbon intensive nature of aviation emissions.

They illustrated that aeroplane emissions make a significant contribution to the UK's total greenhouse gas emissions. By analysing scenarios in which passenger numbers increased and airports expanded, they projected that rapidly rising emissions would accompany the growth of air travel. If this growth continued unchecked, they claimed, air travel would soon dwarf all other sources of greenhouse gas emissions.

These predictions proved to be highly influential. They were presented as evidence to climate change policy makers, including the Environmental Audit Committee and HM Treasury’s aviation working group.

The research has informed the Scottish Climate Change Bill and played a crucial role in the debate around including aviation emissions in the UK Climate Change Act. The aviation sector has also been included within the EU's flagship mechanism for curbing emissions – the EU Emissions Trading Scheme.

Campaigning groups have also made use of the research. Friends of the Earth, WWF, Plane Stupid and Climate Camp have successfully lobbied the UK government to halt UK airport expansion using evidence from the Tyndall Manchester scenarios.

In one high publicity stunt at a BAA hearing into airport expansion, campaigners from Plane Stupid strapped the Tyndall research report to their bodies and created a banner, 'Armed with only peer reviewed science'. The subsequent media attention, including coverage on Newsnight, effectively presented the report to the aviation sector; key stakeholders such as Airbus, Easyjest and the Civil Aviation Authority have since stepped forward to participate in on-going research on their carbon emissions.

Environmental campaigners strapped the research report to their bodies and created a banner that read 'Armed with only peer reviewed science.'

The debate on airport expansion reached a climax in 2010 when BAA withdrew its planning application for a third runway at Stansted Airport. In the same year Lord Justice Carnwarth spoke against the planned expansion of Heathrow, stating that increasing air travel would bring costly carbon emissions that had not been accounted considered in the application.

The emissions scenarios have also been instrumental in halting the expansion of smaller, regional airports and improved carbon budgeting by airport operators.

Research background

Tyndall Manchester's research made clear that the growing aviation sector may affect broader energy systems and climate change policies, such as UK emission targets.

To assess the factors that may influence future emissions, the researchers coupled quantitative modelling with qualitative interviews and workshops with industry and policy stakeholders. They found that the planned growth of air travel starkly contrasts the planned UK and EU emission cuts. Current technology would not be able to ‘save the day’ because it could not reduce carbon emissions fast enough if the air sector continued to grow.

The collaborative team developed a model to explore how aviation emissions impact national decarbonisation efforts. The model was the first of its kind to incorporate emissions from international aviation and shipping. It allowed the researchers to predict that within decades aviation expansion could be responsible for the vast majority of UK and EU emissions.

The collaboration also produced a novel method which could apportion aviation emissions to small (sub-national) regions. From a policy-perspective this would allow airline emissions to be controlled by sub-national emissions policies and mechanisms.

The research also assessed what might happen if aviation was included in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme. They concluded that with the ensuing low carbon price, including aviation in the scheme would have little impact on the growing level of aviation-related CO2.

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