International climate scientists join call to halt Leeds Bradford airport expansion


Leading international climate scientists are among more than 200 academics who have written to the government calling on it to halt what they say would be an ecologically destructive expansion of Leeds Bradford airport.

Almost 250 professors, academics and researchers from Leeds University, including two of the lead authors of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, have written to Robert Jenrick, the minister for housing, communities and local government, predicting dire consequences for the climate crisis if the plans go ahead.

They argue the proposals would breach guidelines set out by the Climate Change Committee in its sixth carbon budget, published in December, and make it “much more difficult and costly” for the UK to achieve its net zero climate targets.

Prof Julia Steinberger, a lead author with the IPCC, said: “The Leeds Bradford airport expansion represents a firm commitment to worsening climate breakdown now and in the future … If we want to avoid the worsening of the greatest threat humanity has ever faced, we must ramp down fossil-fuelled sectors.”

The plans for the airport, which would allow passenger number to increase from 4 to 7 million a year by 2030, were given conditional approval by Leeds city council last month, despite widespread opposition from local MPs, residents and environmental groups.

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What does net zero mean?

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Net zero emissions springs from the Paris agreement, though the goal was not made explicit in the treaty’s text. World leaders set the 2C limit, and the aspirational limit of 1.5C, at Paris based on advice from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the leading body of the world’s climate scientists, which has over years worked out that 2C was the threshold of safety, beyond which the ravages of climate breakdown were likely to become catastrophic and irreversible. Even at 1.5C, many low-lying areas could flood from sea level rises and storm surges.

After Paris, the IPCC was asked to advise further on the emissions cuts needed to stay within those limits. Building on its previous findings, the world’s climate science authority established in 2018 that emissions would have to reach zero around mid-century, and that this could be achieved if emissions were halved in the next decade or so.

That clear scientific backing helped to establish net zero emissions by 2050 as the standard that must be achieved.

Net zero emissions means reducing emissions as far as possible, and balancing out whatever remains by increasing carbon sinks, for instance by growing trees or restoring wetlands and peatlands. Phasing out coal, switching to renewable energy, the more efficient use of energy, and moving to electrified transport will all be key. Nuclear power may also play a role, and some countries such as China and France are investing in a new generation of reactors. Carbon capture and storage technology, by which carbon dioxide from large sources as gas-fired power plants or industrial units is captured at source, liquefied and piped into large underground chambers, such as depleted oilfields, is also likely to be needed, in varying amounts according to different analyses.

Some scientists believe we also need to start to capture carbon dioxide directly from the air. One method of doing this involves crushing up limestone rocks to spread chalk dust on fields. The limestone absorbs carbon, and the dust improves the soil.

Last week the same lawyers who are taking on the government over a proposed new coalmine in Cumbria wrote to Jenrick on behalf of campaigners, asking him to “call in” the decision – a process that would allow the national and international climate ramifications of granting permission for the airport to be considered.

Now scores of climate scientists and academics have added their support, saying the proposals would lead to a huge increase in emissions and undermine the UK’s global standing before the climate conference to be held in Glasgow later this year.

The letter, sent to Jenrick on Thursday, states: “In the year that the UK is hosting the Cop26 conference, it is vital that we show leadership on climate change and take the necessary actions to secure a safe, zero carbon future. We therefore urge you to call in this application so that the issues highlighted are considered in light of national and international climate targets and associated guidance.”

Leeds Bradford is one of several airports, including Stansted, Southampton and Bristol, attempting to get backing for expansion proposals. Its supporters say the redevelopment would boost the local economy and support thousands of new jobs.

Henri Murison, director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, said the north deserved the same access to international flights as Heathrow offered in the south. “Connecting the north to the rest of the European continent and beyond is critical to driving the Northern Powerhouse and we need a greater share of flights directly here, both to reduce the number of cars driving down to Heathrow as well as to close the north-south divide.”

However, critics have disputed this, saying the expansion would lock the region into a diminishing carbon-intensive economic future in a sector that was already shedding jobs and becoming automated. Instead, they said, investment should be channelled into more sustainable sectors providing long-term, secure jobs.

A near-deserted Leeds Bradford airport during the first lockdown
A near-deserted Leeds Bradford airport during the first lockdown Photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP

A report from the New Economics Foundation, commissioned by campaigners, found there would be little if any economic benefit, and that if the impact of more people holidaying abroad rather than in the UK were factored in, the expansion would be a drain on the economy.

Leeds Bradford airport said the planned increase in passengers at the airport was not dependant on the proposals, but would “enable long-term sustainable operations, significantly improve passenger experience and entice airlines to operate the next generation of green aviation technology”.

It said the proposals were not an expansion of the airport and that there would be a significant economic benefit to the region, “protecting and creating jobs” and supporting the government’s levelling-up agenda.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said last month that because of the scale of the proposed development and its green belt location, the application, if given final approval by the council, “will be referred to the secretary of state”.

However, campaigners said this did not answer their critical climate concerns. Estelle Dehon, a barrister acting on behalf of the Group for Action on Leeds Bradford Airport (Galba), said: “[The government’s] response has been to put off any decision about call-in, because at some future point the council is obliged to refer the green belt impact to Mr Jenrick so he can consider call-in on that basis. This delay is unjustified. And green belt referral is no a guarantee that the decision will be called in.”



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