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Achieving net zero by 2030 will be impossible if the Leeds Bradford airport expansion goes ahead

3 min read

In the year the UK is hosting the COP26 conference, allowing this expansion to go ahead would be a big mistake.

The government is currently preparing to host COP26 when countries from across the world will come to the UK to discuss the next steps needed to tackle dangerous climate change.

Meanwhile sitting in Robert Jenrick’s inbox is a rather significant document. It’s a planning application to expand Leeds Bradford Airport (LBA) and the government will need to take a decision on this. This one airport plans to emit more CO2 than a number of small countries most vulnerable to climate change.

While LBA expansion may not be on the scale of Heathrow, the proposal has implications that go way beyond the immediate locality of the airport. It is the aviation equivalent of the proposed new Cumbria coal mine about which ministers now appear to be having second thoughts.

The airport’s planned expansion from 4m to 7m passengers and consequent increase in greenhouse gases is clearly incompatible with our commitment to achieve net zero, given the way aircrafts are currently powered.

Approving an expansion at Leeds Bradford airport would contradict the advice of the Committee on Climate Change

It also goes directly against the advice of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) which, in its Sixth Carbon Budget, said there should be “no net expansion of UK airport capacity”, unless the sector is on track to sufficiently outperform its trajectory to net zero.

At present, we are not even close to being on track. This means that the only way that LBA can expand, is if there is a compensating reduction in capacity at another airport. In the absence of this, approving an expansion at LBA would contradict the advice of the CCC.

Amongst the many individuals (myself included) and organisations pressing Mr Jenrick to hold a public inquiry are over 200 academics, including international climate scientists from Leeds University who recently wrote to him urging him to ‘call in' the application. Indeed, while the application was being assessed by Leeds City Council (LCC), evidence was submitted by university experts led by Professor Julia Steinberger, a lead author for the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 5th and 6th assessment reports. This detailed the full climate impact of expansion and stated that an expanded LBA would be emitting 1.227 Mt CO2e annually by 2030, a factor 2.5 larger than LBA claimed.

Leeds City Council declared a climate emergency in 2019 and committed to achieving net zero in the city by 2030. An inconvenient truth is that this would be impossible to achieve with an expanded LBA.

A ‘call in’ would result in a public inquiry where the climate impact could be fully assessed. Without leadership, every airport would have the potential to expand in an unregulated race to the bottom, which would make it very hard for the UK to achieve its climate commitments and would seriously damage the UK’s claim to be a world leader in tackling the climate crisis.

In the year the UK is hosting the COP26 conference, allowing this expansion to go ahead would be a big mistake.

The Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government now has to decide by 6th April whether to sign off the application or hold a public inquiry. Lots of people are hoping that he does the right thing and chooses the latter.

Over to you, Mr Jenrick.


Hilary Benn is the Labour MP for Leeds Central.

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