Labour’s Transport Chief Rejects ‘Pause’ on UK Airport Expansions Despite Climate Warnings

Jim McMahon said it was not the “right approach” in a panel discussion at Labour’s party conference in Brighton.
Labour’s Transport Chief Rejects ‘Pause’ on UK Airport Expansions Despite Climate Warnings
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Jim McMahon said air travel was driven by demand and would recover from the pandemic. Credit: Ardfern (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Labour’s transport spokesperson has rejected calls to “pause” expansions at UK airports during a party conference event on how to “build back greener” after the Covid-19 pandemic.

Jim McMahon, Labour’s shadow transport secretary, claimed that some flights were “too cheap”, however, while speaking on a panel event on Tuesday alongside Andy Brown, group corporate affairs director at Manchester Airports Group and Karen Dee, CEO of the Airports Operations Association.

McMahon was replying to a question from DeSmog after Dan Norris, Metro Mayor of the West of England, appearing on the same panel, said he opposed the planned expansion of Bristol Airport – which includes a terminal extension, new plane taxiing routes and 2,000 new parking spaces – and called for a pause on other expansions.

After being asked whether he agreed with Norris, McMahon, who is also MP for Oldham West and Royston, started by replying to another question, saying: “For a long time aviation was the preserve of the richest.”

“If you reduce the flight[s], you increase the cost of that. And all that would mean is that working class people are cut off from that year’s holiday.”

‘Not the Right Approach’

Turning to airport expansions, McMahon said air travel was driven by demand and would recover from the pandemic, adding: “The idea that we can even pause what are generational projects for the sake of two to three years, virtually, I don’t agree that is the right approach, if the demand is there.”

He suggested some flights were “too cheap” and that increasing the cost of flying would raise money that could be invested in sustainable fuels. McMahon also called for airports to decarbonise their whole operations, including flights, to tackle climate change. 

His comments came after Labour’s announcement on Monday that the party would spend £28 billion each year until 2030 to cut emissions, if elected.

Aviation emissions accounted for seven percent of the UK’s annual greenhouse gas emissions in 2018, 93 percent from international flights, according to the Climate Change Committee (CCC).

The government advisory body has said there should be no “net” airport expansion if the UK is to meet its net zero targets. 

Agathe de Canson, a policy adviser at Green Alliance attending the event, responding to McMahon’s remarks, said: “Sustainable flying isn’t yet on the horizon. We can’t meet our net zero targets while expanding airports and taking even more flights than we did before the pandemic.” 

She added: “Alongside efforts to decarbonise aviation, the UK government must focus on ensuring Britain’s public transport system is more affordable, efficient and comfortable.” 

Stansted Expansion

DeSmog also asked Andy Brown why Manchester Airports Group was pursuing the expansion of Stansted Airport, which it owns, despite projected emissions rises. 

Brown said the expansion had planning approval following an inquiry this year, though this is being challenged by Uttlesford District Council at the High Court.

Brown continued: “The increase in passenger numbers when it comes will not be through any more flights, it will not be through any more noise of disruption to the local community, it will be more people travelling through the same number of flights there.”

He said the expansion was taken into account by the airport’s plans to hit net zero, which was in line with recommendations from the Sustainable Aviation industry group and included the development of hydrogen fuel and other new technologies. 

Brown added: “We have our plan to get there. It’s not as fast as many people would like, but we think it’s a credible plan to get there.”

Tim Johnson, director at the Aviation Environment Federation, disputed the claims, however: “There is no evidence to support the idea that we can keep growing passenger numbers and meet our climate commitments. 

“The eight airports that are currently applying for more capacity will, if approved, generate an additional 8.5 million tonnes of CO2 in 2050. The Climate Change Committee has been clear that expansion should only be considered if and when the industry outperforms the required emissions reductions necessary to get to net zero. 

“That won’t be easy: plans for large electric or hydrogen passenger planes before 2050 remain highly speculative, as is the idea that the sector’s residual carbon emissions can be balanced using greenhouse gas removal technologies.”

The Labour Party conference also featured a “Heathrow lounge and sustainability showcase” at the Hilton Brighton Metropole hotel organised by Heathrow Airport, which has long been trying to build a third runway. 

This week a report by Transport & Environment, ODI and the International Council on Clean Transportation found that Heathrow is the world’s second highest-emitting airport.

Labour’s Transport Chief Rejects ‘Pause’ on UK Airport Expansions Despite Climate Warnings
Adam Barnett is DeSmog's UK News Reporter. He is a former Staff Writer at Left Foot Forward and BBC Local Democracy Reporter.

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