The expansion of Heathrow airport will lead to an extra 600,000 tonnes of climate pollution from Scotland’s airports over 15 years, according to an analysis by the Scottish Government.
The planned construction of a third runway at London’s biggest airport will result in over 5,000 more flights every year from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and other Scottish airports, the analysis says. This will significantly increase climate-disrupting carbon dioxide emissions from planes.
The revelation has prompted campaigners to criticise the Scottish Government’s backing for the expansion at Heathrow as “indefensible” in the face of the climate emergency. But the government argues that the expansion will boost jobs and investment in Scotland.
The UK government and parliament backed a third runway at Heathrow in June 2018, but the expansion remains deeply controversial because of concerns over pollution and noise. The runway was first given the go-ahead by the Labour government in 2009, but this was reversed by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition in 2010.
The current UK government’s support for the project is now facing a legal challenge by environmental campaigners, local councils and the London mayor, Sadiq Khan. Meanwhile the planned opening of the new runway has been delayed from 2026 to 2028-29.
The Scottish Government has supported the expansion since 2016 on the grounds that it will bring economic benefits, though the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has said that the position is under review. Heathrow’s chief executive, John Holland-Kaye, promised that “an expanded Heathrow would create up to 16,000 jobs in Scotland”.
The climate impact of the expansion has been revealed by an internal “emission modelling” analysis released by the Scottish Government to The Ferret under freedom of information law. The analysis suggested that additional flights between Heathrow and Scottish airports would emit over 40,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide every year from 2026 to 2032.
From 2033 to 2040 the analysis predicted that additional annual emissions would drop to 37,764 tonnes. But this assumed that “improvements to aircraft emissions efficiency of 0.8 per year” and “does not model demand growth over time.”
The total additional emissions over 15 years amount to 599,578 tonnes. According to Friends of the Earth Scotland, this is equivalent to putting an extra 17,000 cars on the roads in Scotland every year.
The analysis envisaged that the Heathrow expansion would trigger 5,044 additional return flights from Scottish airports every year. There would be 605,000 extra individual passenger return trips every year, it said.
“Rough modelling of projected baseline emissions suggests that the third runway expansion will result in a circa two per cent increase for Scotland over current aviation emission levels,” it added. The analysis did not assess the wider UK impacts of the Heathrow expansion.
Flying is widely recognised as one of the most polluting ways to travel. According to the Scottish Government’s sustainable travel strategy, plane journeys emit four times more carbon than equivalent trips by train.
Environmental groups called on Scottish ministers to reduce air travel and improve rail journeys. “Flying fuels the climate crisis so we need to reduce aviation, not expand it and worsen the emergency,” said Friends of the Earth Scotland’s climate campaigner, Caroline Rance.
“Instead of introducing ever more flights for the short distance between Scotland and England, the focus should be on improving train services while reducing the cost to passengers.”
Colin Howden, director of the sustainable transport alliance, Transform Scotland, said: “Having declared a climate emergency, it is simply indefensible for the Scottish Government to support increased capacity for this most environmentally-damaging mode of transport.”
He pointed out that Edinburgh-London and Glasgow-London were two of the busiest aviation routes in Europe. “These are over distances where rail should be providing a much higher share of the travel market,” he argued.
Howden criticised the Scottish Government’s latest programme for government for saying nothing about reducing the volume of Anglo-Scottish air trips, focussing instead on future trials for electric planes in the Highlands and Islands.
“Welcome though this may be, it is frankly irrelevant in climate terms in comparison with the huge volume of unnecessary short-haul flights from Edinburgh and Glasgow to the London airports,” he said.
The Scottish Liberal Democrats condemned the Heathrow expansion as “environmental vandalism” and demanded that Scottish ministers end their backing. “Heathrow is already the single biggest emitter in the UK,” said the party’s Scottish leader, Willie Rennie MSP.
“It’s disgraceful for the SNP to continue to back its expansion now that they have belatedly assessed the environmental impact. They must immediately heed the evidence, change their tune and withdraw their support.”
Flight Free UK, which is urging people not to fly in 2020, argued that the Heathrow expansion does not just affect those living near the airport. “It affects all of us, and this is clearly shown by the projected increase in Scotland’s emissions that would occur if a third runway were to be built,” said the group’s Anna Hughes.
“We urge Scotland to be a true climate leader and withdraw its support for Heathrow expansion.”
The government’s Transport Scotland pointed out that it signed a memorandum of understanding with Heathrow Airport in 2016. “Scotland will benefit from this major infrastructure project which will bring significant job creation and investment opportunities to Scotland,” said a spokesperson for the agency.
“The decision on future airport expansion in the south east of England has already been taken by the Westminster parliament. We are currently updating our climate change plan in light of the new targets set by parliament at the end of last year, and we expect this work to be complete by the end of April.”
The spokesperson added: “The National Transport Strategy, which is due to be published next month, will set the future direction for transport over the next 20 years and identifies tackling climate action as a priority. We have commissioned independent research to inform what further action is needed to decarbonise the Scottish transport sector and this will consider a range of policy measures across all modes.”
The Ferret reported in October 2019 that the Scottish Government’s civil service chief, Leslie Evans, had flown to and from London four times more often than going by train while telling her 6,000 officials to “avoid domestic air travel where trains are available”.
A spokesperson for the UK Department for Transport said: “An expanded Heathrow will improve Scotland’s connections with the rest of the world and could deliver up to 16,000 new jobs in Scotland.
“The airports national policy statement guarantees that any new runway at Heathrow will only be built if it complies with our carbon reduction targets, now and in the future.”
AGS Airports, which runs Glasgow and Aberdeen airports, insisted it was working to make flying more environmentally friendly. “We support Heathrow’s plans for a third runway on the basis that the connectivity it provides as the UK’s only hub airport plays an important role in supporting the Scottish economy,” said a company spokesperson.
“By working in partnership with government, we believe the wider aviation industry can make real progress in decarbonising air travel and ensuring the UK achieves net zero by 2050.”
But Edinburgh Airport said it opposed the expansion of Heathrow, arguing that it would be better if people flew direct to their destinations from Scotland, rather than via Heathrow. “We should be offering passengers choice of travel rather than restricting options,” said a spokesperson for the airport.
“We should be promoting Scotland as a direct destination, something that will reduce air miles and the need for additional flights…The aviation industry has already made significant investment in new, cleaner aircraft and technology to improve the sustainability of the sector, and it is committed to further advances to play its part in this international issue.”