Feature image: Stephen Clarke and Tarisha Finnegan-Clarke, who are part of Bristol Airport Action Network (BAAN)
The public inquiry currently taking place in Weston-super-Mare is to decide what is probably the most important carbon-related decision in this region for a generation: whether the proposed expansion of Bristol Airport can go ahead.
The question being considered by three planning inspectors in this 10-week inquiry is whether to let Bristol Airport expand by an extra two million passengers a year. North Somerset Council refused the airport permission to expand in February 2020 and the Airport is appealing that decision.
Objectors to the plans say that they will lead to an extra million tonnes of carbon every year (a figure more than half of the whole of Bristol’s direct emissions), thousands more car movements and night flights disturbing local residents’ sleep. The airport is saying it will lead to greater prosperity and ‘connectivity’ for the region, more jobs and greater choice of destinations.
This has become a nationally important decision, as it is likely to signal a precedent for the other 23 regional airports considering expansion and with COP26, the UN climate summit, taking place in November.
To go back to the beginning, Bristol Airport Ltd applied for planning permission to expand in December 2018. Local residents quickly organised themselves through the formation of Bristol Airport Action Network (BAAN), which led a campaign including many members from local Extinction Rebellion groups, Stop Bristol Airport Expansion and the local parishes council association (PCAA). In February 2020, this culminated in local councillors voting decisively to reject the proposals by 18 votes to seven.
Despite the rejection of its plans by 84% of residents in the region, the airport decided to appeal against that decision, which takes us to the present day.
Recently, the inquiry has covered a pivotal issue: the impact of the expansion on the climate crisis. The airport argued that climate-related issues were simply not something that should be decided locally. It was for central government not local councillors to make decisions about climate issues. The complex debate about this single question quickly made it clear that there is no single coherent UK aviation strategy. In fact, North Somerset Council argued that this meant it was ‘premature’ to make any decision at all at this time.
The airport claimed that in any event the extra carbon emissions from the expansion would not be a significant percentage of the UK’s total emissions and would not, on its own, mean that the UK would be more likely to miss its carbon targets – therefore permission could be granted. One of BAAN’s experts, Professor Kevin Anderson, retorted that by definition every single infrastructure project was a small percentage of the national total and stated that this argument had often been used by climate deniers. He said that “every single tonne of carbon matters to the climate”.
Professor Anderson then put the expansion in the wider context of climate chaos making it plain that increased temperatures (caused by burning fossil fuels) would lead to UK sea level rises, many more extreme weather events, food scarcity and economic instability. He also argued that an expanded Bristol Airport would make it substantially more difficult for the UK to meet its legal net zero targets, its obligations under the Paris Agreement and the recommendations of its own climate change committee.
He said any expansion “would make a mockery” of the surrounding council’s declaration of a climate emergency and all the efforts residents and local businesses were putting into reducing their emissions. “This proposal is […] akin to pouring yet more fuel on an already out-of-control fire,” he concluded.
The airport painted a picture of protestors trying to stop working people taking their annual family holidays. BAAN’s expert rejected that claim and said that it was not annual family holidays that were causing climate chaos; the problem was the 15% of people who took more than 70% of the flights – the ‘frequent flyers’.
He also pointed out that 89% of the world’s population has never flown, and yet the people who fly the least are those most affected by climate chaos, both in the UK and globally.
The airport argued that, because of increasing technological development, an extra two million passengers a year would not actually mean increased noise, carbon emissions or air pollution. Its public health expert stated that instead, local people would actually be healthier because of the economic opportunities brought about by the expansion. The arguments relied heavily on the development of low emission aircraft powered by electric and hydrogen and new fuels, which they say will mean much reduced emissions.
Finlay Asher, giving evidence for BAAN, rejected these claims. He worked for Rolls Royce for seven years as an engineer and understood the practical details of aircraft engine design. He gave evidence that there was no technological ‘silver bullet’ on the horizon and any such claims were greenwash. Neither electric or hydrogen aircraft or synthetic fuels are anywhere near practical commerciality: the airport’s proposed solutions were aspirational and would not be relevant for at least the next 30 years.
Sam Hunter-Jones, a solicitor from Client Earth, gave evidence concerning the UK’s obligations concerning carbon emissions and told the inquiry that we are already failing to meet our current carbon budgets and would have little chance of meeting our legally binding 2050 net zero commitment if airports such as Bristol were allowed to expand.
On 16 September, 48 members of the public made impassioned statements of objection while only two supported expansion. Councillor Paula O’Rourke, Bristol Green Party leader in the City Council, pointed to the need to respect democratic decision making. She said North Somerset councillors had voted 18 to 7 against expansion; 11,000 public statements against the expansion were received in the planning process; local councils have objected (including Bristol, BANES and North Somerset); and the Metro Mayor for the West of England Dan Norris and the local MP Liam Fox are against the expansion. She said these voices should not be ignored.
Several speakers referred to a new survey of 10,000 young people aged 16-25 led by the University of Bath in 10 countries. This revealed that almost 60% of young people are ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ worried by climate change; 39% said they are hesitant about having their own children because of this and 45% said their feelings about climate change ‘negatively affected their daily lives’.
One of the most striking pieces of evidence was given by Professor Colin Davis of Bristol University who has calculated, using figures from a peer reviewed paper from Nature, the actual number of excess deaths that will be caused by the carbon emissions from Bristol Airport. Using the Airport’s own 2026 figures for carbon emissions, which does not take expansion into account, he has calculated that a shocking 267 people will die each and every year from excess heat alone. That’s not including flooding or any of the other impacts of climate change, just caused by the carbon pumped into the atmosphere if these plans go ahead. He concluded that the inspectors’ decision is a moral one as well as a planning one.
The inquiry ends in early October. We await to hear if the inspectors are convinced.
Stephen Clarke is part of Bristol Airport Action Network (BAAN) and used to be the Green Party councillor for Southville.