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‘Climate change was taken out of the equation’: Campaigners react to losing the battle over Bristol Airport expansion

In the midst of a climate and ecological crisis, Government planners have given Bristol Airport the go-ahead to expand.

Reports

Campaigners have accused government planners of ignoring the climate crisis and “trashing” local democracy after it gave plans for Bristol Airport’s expansion the green light, overruling a council’s decision.

North Somerset Council had refused an application by the airport to increase its capacity from 10 million to 12 passengers per year. But after an appeal, central government planners this week overturned the decision.

It was a tough conclusion to swallow for campaigners who hailed the proposed expansion as one of the biggest climate decisions facing the region, with news of the move coming just months after the UK hosted the Cop26 climate summit.

“The planning inspectorate has totally ignored the climate crisis we are currently in,” Stephen Clarke tells the Cable. As part of campaign group Bristol Airport Action Network (BAAN), Clarke took a lead role in mounting the defence campaign in last year’s inquiry. 

“The final decision had to weigh up the environmental costs and damages against economic benefits,” he explains. “But by the end of the report, climate change seemed to have been removed from the equation,” he adds.

“Local democracy has been ignored and trashed. We collected 11,000 comments against the airport’s expansion. North Somerset Council voted against it. In the end, all that local opposition counted for nothing,” he adds. 

His anger and frustration is shared by many who feel their concerns and fears for the climate have fallen on deaf ears. The Cable has spoken to some of the key players in the opposition campaign about their reactions to the inspectors’ decision.

Decision flies in the face of local democracy

The Planning Inspectorate itself acknowledged in its report that there remained “a significant level of opposition” to the plan, and that its ruling would be “a major disappointment” to some. 

Richard Baxter from BAAN and Bristol Greenpeace said: “Last November, Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned world leaders at the COP26 climate summit that it is now ‘one minute to midnight’ in the race to prevent global heating from surpassing a critical threshold. He called for immediate action, yet he presides over a government that is seriously failing UK citizens in tackling the problem.”

“It’s deeply, deeply depressing, but no great surprise,” said a resigned Steve Melia, a climate activist and academic from UWE. He gave evidence to an inquiry into the airport’s expansion last year and was a speaker at Glasgow COP 26. “Government’s always talk about decarbonising, but end up doing nothing because it’s politically unpopular and they need to appease business interests. All Governments do, and have ever done, is pay lip service to the environment.” 

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Alex Chapman, a senior researcher from New Economics Foundation who gave evidence to the expansion inquiry, spent Wednesday evening pouring over the inspectors’ 118-page report. “All those people who raised heartfelt accounts during the inquiry may as well not have shown up,” Chapman said. “It was just an illusion of public consultation.” 

“It is unforgivable that the Government’s Inspectorate has been apparently taken in by Bristol Airport’s self-serving lies and exaggerations,” adds Tarisha Finnegan Clarke, member of BAAN. 

“This flies in the face of local democracy,” North Somerset Council leader Don Davies said. Councillor for Winterstoke Ciarán Cronnelly tweeted: “What a disappointing decision. Feel for the residents who so valiantly campaigned for expansion to be rejected. I voted to reject so this stings a lot.”

Back in February 2020, councillors voted 18-7 to reject the expansion plans, citing strong concern for the adverse effect on their parishioners were the decision to go ahead. At the time, the Cable spoke to people living under the flight path who feared what the increased noise, pollution and air traffic would do to their quality of life. Around 84% of residents in the region were against the expansion. 

‘Inspectors didn’t engage with our evidence’

The key argument the airport put forward for expansion was the economic benefits. Speaking after the verdict of the report, the airport’s CEO David Lees rejoiced. He said: “[It’s] excellent news for our region’s economy, allowing us to create thousands of new jobs in the years ahead and provide more choice for our customers, supporting inbound tourism, and reducing the millions of road journeys made to London airports each year.” 

Speaking to the Cable back in 2019 about his report into the airport’s business case, Chapman concluded it was “grossly exaggerated” and overestimated the economic benefits, while “underestimating the potential carbon costs.” He found there were concerning mistakes in the methodology used by the airport which provided skewed results that worked in their favour. 

“We challenged these economic benefits, but it doesn’t seem the inspectors have engaged with our evidence,” Chapman said. Instead, he explained, the report takes as gospel the airport carbon emission estimates, but those don’t take into account the emissions of the planes, or of non-CO2 emissions.   

The report also ignores the impact of non CO2 emissions, arguing there is insufficient scientific evidence to prove it’s detriment, Chapman said. “But there are plenty of academics who evidence this. The government even has suggested a quantitative way to forecast non-carbon emissions.”

Chapman said the economic argument does not take the cost the expansion will have on the climate into account. Climate costs are calculated through carbon pricing – a method by which a financial cost is applied to carbon emissions. Research by NEF said this was up to six times worse than claimed in the expansion inquiry and this is not acknowledged in the inspectorate report. 

Another justification for the expansion in the report is that the “overall emissions of the scheme are modest compared to those of other airports” – an argument which Chapman concluded is simply “bizarre.” Expert witness Professor Kevin Anderson said in the inquiry: “every single tonne of carbon matters to the climate”. 

So what happens now?

The report concluded that rulings over climate change are for the central government to decide, not local authorities. As there is nothing in government policy to constrain airport capacity, there was no need to do so. 

It acknowledged that as things stand there is no policy to satisfy the legal requirement to achieve Net Zero, “but we must assume the Secretary of State will adhere to the Climate Change Act,” it added.

In comments to the BBC, Metro Mayor Dan Norris said the government’s “lack of green policy” on UK airport expansion] has resulted in inspectors “ignoring the voices of local people”.

“We are now taking legal advice from our barrister, who is now a QC. We think aspects of the decision may be illegal in terms of national and international law, as it contravenes the Paris Agreement,” said BAAN’s Clarke. The Paris Agreement is a legally binding international treaty on climate change, adopted by the UK at COP 21 in 2015. There is also the option to take this to a judicial review – but this is a complicated and costly process. 

Campaigners are reeling from the decision and slowly strategizing their next move. But some, like Melia, have given up hope on achieving change through democratic channels. “The wider environmental movement now needs to stand up to the fact that the government will not take serious action on the climate. Obstructive direct action is our only hope” he said.

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