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Birmingham International Airport: A 'greenwash' on climate change?

NoFlyBIA | 10.09.2007 12:42 | Analysis | Climate Chaos | Birmingham

Original analysis that questions some of the climate science behind Birmingham International Airport's claim to 'sustainability', ahead of the forthcoming release of its 'master plan' that will outline the airports strategy for expansion.

Birmingham International Airport (BIA) is attempting to expand its existing runway and increase flights from its terminals. The ‘master plan’ in which these attempts are outlined is due for publication anytime this year. The draft master plan – released in 2005 – makes a corporate case for airport expansion, but ignores two extremely important facts:

1. In the UK aviation is the fastest growing source of climate changing emissions.

2. Expanding the capacity of UK airports is incompatible with government targets to reduce UK carbon emissions.

As an airport operator whose profits depend on continued and unlimited growth it is more than a little inconvenient for them that an overwhelming body of peer-reviewed science exists to validate these facts[1].

In its plans for expansion BIA and the aviation industry is putting profit before future of the planet.

In their corporate literature BIA claim to be a ‘sustainable’ business. They boast about the increases that have been made in people travelling to the airport by public transport, for example. However, when confronted with aviation’s role in global climate change BIA defy the overwhelming consensus of scientific opinion to downplay and in some cases ignore completely the contribution of the aviation industry to catastrophic climate change. They do this by making a series of claims that are apparently supposed to de-bunk some of the ‘misconceptions’ and ‘inaccuracies’ behind peer-reviewed climate science.

What follows is an attempt to set straight some of these claims by focusing upon a report concerning local environment and community issues, produced by BIA for 2005-6. The full report can be freely accessed online here: [2]

The text between *'s is a word-for-word copy of the text presented in the report. It takes the form of an anonymous quote about aviation and climate change, which is then followed by a counter-claim from BIA, based upon their more, ahem, rigorous and non-partisan understanding of climate science. They do not provide references to any of their sources.

It is left to the reader to determine whether this constitutes a corporate ‘greenwash’:

*“All Air transport was excluded from the Kyoto accord (on climate change). Aviation is doing nothing to mitigate effects on the environment.”
In fact, domestic aviation is included in Kyoto. There is commitment to find a solution for international aviation through the International Civil Aviation Organisation. Airlines took environmental performance seriously long before Kyoto; there has been a 70% decrease per passenger kilometre in emissions over 40 years.*

Despite the inclusion of domestic aviation in the Kyoto accord there was no inclusion of the crucial targets needed on INTERNATIONAL aviation (i.e. flights between countries). This means there is no legal obligation to reduce emissions from flights leaving or entering the UK. Rather, as part of the initial Kyoto agreement governments were INVITED to pursue the limitation and reduction of emissions by VOLUNTARILY working through the ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization)[3].

The figure of a 70% reduction in fuel consumption over the past 40 years (taken from an IPCC Special Report on Aviation [4]) is an optimistic and flawed figure, as suggested in a 2005 study by Peeters and Hoolhorst [5]. Their analyses criticize the use of the DH Comet 4 aircraft as a reference model in the IPCC study as well as the other parameters used to produce a figure of 70%. In fact, Peeters and Hoolhurst conclude that ‘the last piston-powered aircraft appear to have had the same energy efficiency per available seat-kilometre as the average modern jet aircraft’ [6].

*“Air transport is a major source of Greenhouse gas emissions.”
Aviation’s contribution is only 2% – a small part of global CO2 emissions – yet it supports 8% of the world’s economic activity. Within the transport sector, aviation is responsible for 12% of CO2 emissions – road transport generates 80%. In the EU, aviation accounts for 3.4% of CO2 emissions. Compare that to power generation at 39% or road traffic at 22%. Demand is growing, but let’s keep things in perspective; it is growing, but from a small base. So even if all flying stopped completely, the result is only a 2% global improvement.*

The aviation industry is the fastest growing source of climate changing emissions in the UK. This isn’t perspective, this is fact.

The quoted figure of 2% represents a GLOBAL estimate of CO2 emissions and is based – it appears – on statistics produced in an outdated 1992 study by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [7]. Air traffic has grown massively since these figures were produced and the UK will also account for a much bigger share of aviation emissions than its population would imply.

In addition, simply focusing on CO2 emissions ignores the other pollutants produced by aircraft fuel, such as Nitrogen oxides (NOx) and water vapours (H20). Released at high altitudes these compounds are far more potent as greenhouse gases than CO2. This is scientifically uncontroversial [8]. Assessing the impact of these gases is complex and problematic, although estimates from peer-reviewed sources suggest that the climate changing effect or ‘radiative forcing’ of these gases is likely to be between 2 and 4 higher than that of CO2 emissions alone [9].

The figure of 12% of total transport emissions could not include emissions from international flights. If it did the CO2 contribution of aviation as a percentage of total transport in the UK would be much higher.

Government figures show that in 2005 aviation accounted for 13% of TOTAL UK greenhouse emissions. That is, across ALL sectors, not just in the transport sector (see Secretary of State for Transport Gillian Merron’s reply to the House of Commons, May 2007 at However, this itself is an underestimate as it only takes into account flights departing the UK. A more realistic estimate based upon both departing and return flights would produce a figure closer to 20% for UK aviation emissions in 2007. Between 2000 and 2030 aviation emissions of CO2 are forecast to double [10]

*“Air transport is the most polluting form of transport.”
That’s not true. Airline fuel efficiency improved 20% in the last decade, and nearly 5% over the past 2 years alone. Fuel consumption by modern aircraft is around 3.5 litres per 100 passenger kilometres. That is similar to a small compact car – but with 6 times the speed. New generations of aircraft will take this well below 3.0 litres, over the next few years.*

Fuel efficiency has nothing to do with the composition of pollutants in aviation fuel. As stated above, the altitude at which NOx and water vapour is released by aircraft increases the radiative forcing of emissions by a factor of approximately 2-4 times that of CO2 alone. This is not a problem with land-based forms of transport.

As BIA do not reference the source of their fuel efficiency statistics it is not possible to directly challenge their veracity. However, fuel consumption figures can vary enormously depending upon the parameters used in the calculation. For example, how full the aircraft is, the flight destination, and the make and model of aircraft all have a bearing on how fuel efficient any given journey might be. On AVERAGE though, over SHORT distances (less than 1000km - which would include many European short-haul flights) a car is generally more efficient. But more efficient still is traveling by train, which has an energy consumption that is 40-70% lower than the same journey by plane and a figure for air pollution that is up to 85% lower [11]. It is hardly surprising then that BIA do not compare rail with flight. And once again, neither do the figures include the effects of emissions unique to aviation such as NOx and water vapour.

Radical new aircraft designs and fuels are, at best, several decades away from commercialization and any further efficiency gains, as Martin Broughton, former chairman of British Airways has publicly acknowledged, ‘are likely to be outweighed by future growth’ (quoted from a speech delivered in December 2006; a transcription can be found here

*“Air transport gets a free ride – it does not pay tax.”
Air transport pays entirely for its own infrastructure. This is different from road or rail. And it is a £22.8 billion bill each year. Airlines pay when they land, when they fly, when they park. And if they are too noisy, they get fined – unlike trains.*

The aviation industry pays no tax on aviation fuel and no VAT on the purchase of planes, servicing or air fares. In fact, everything after passport control including baggage handling, airline meals, and air traffic control is tax-free. The UK Treasury has stated that bringing aviation fuel duty in line with the tax imposed on petrol would generate £5.7billion a year for the country [12]. This money could be used to fund better public services - more hospitals, for example, or perhaps even a high speed rail network.

The stated £22.8 billion, whilst partly subsidised by tax breaks, will indeed be paid for by airlines and airport operators such as BIA. But make no mistake, these are companies who are profit driven. They would make no investment were it not for an eventual financial return. For example, Macquarie airports, an Australian company who recently sold their 24% stake in BIA.plc have just announced a $953million profit over a six month period [13]. Absurdly, BIA seems to want to make us feel sorry for them.

*“No tax on fuel means that aviation has an unfair advantage over, say, domestic rail services.”
Domestic UK rail not only gets a tax break on fuel (using so-called ‘red diesel’), it is heavily subsidised by the taxpayer. In Europe, every rail journey is subsidised between 2.4 and 7.4 Euros by the taxpayer. But every air journey deposits between 4.6 and 8.4 Euros into government accounts.*

True, trains do not pay duty on their fuel, but as a form of transport it causes much less pollution. Besides, trains do not have any ‘taxable capacity’ (i.e. they could not afford to pay) unlike the massively swelled coffers of airline companies and airport operators whose industry benefits from an overall hidden tax subsidy that can be estimated at £9.2 billion [14]. Whilst this might, in market terms, cause some ‘unfair competition’ on UK domestic routes by encouraging people to divert from rail to air, this is exactly what the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution recommends [15]. The situation at present – as most people have no doubt experienced – is that bus and train fares have increased over and above inflation in the last two decades, whilst the cost of air-travel has fallen [16]. Furthermore, aviation can hardly be considered an essential UK ‘public service’, unlike a well-financed and efficient bus and rail network.

*“Air transport growth is not sustainable.”
Air transport is essential. It brings people to business, products to markets, tourists to holiday destinations and families together. 80% of aviation emissions are related to flights for which there is no alternative mode of transport.*

Flying is a luxury, not a necessity.

According to a survey undertaken by the Department for Transport in 2003 almost 90% of trips made by the UK population in 2001 were for leisure purposes [17]. BIA’s claim that these flights are both essential and unavoidable is demonstrably false. There IS an alternative: take a holiday that does not require air travel! Equally, we should not need to fly as much food or other goods into the country as we do, and much more international business could be conducted using advances in web technology and video conferencing.
The benefits to the UK economy of air travel are also frequently overstated. In fact, the UK runs a massive economic deficit from air travel: ‘Foreign visitors arriving by air spent nearly £11 billion in the UK in 2004, but UK residents flying out spent £26 billion abroad – a loss to the UK economy of £15 billion pounds’ (from a Friends of the Earth briefing )[18]. This is known as tourism deficit.


The government target of a 60% reduction in CO2 emissions in all sectors by 2050 (2003 energy white paper, accessible from here ) is incompatible with further growth in the aviation industry: ‘Without swift action to curtail aviation growth, all the other UK sectors will have to almost completely decarbonise by 2050 to compensate’[19].

This is NOT sustainable growth. One can only assume that BIA understand ‘sustainable’ in terms of their profits, as they can’t possibly mean a sustainable future for the planet and its inhabitants.

The text from the BIA report cited above is a word-for-word reprint of an article from 2007 entitled ‘Debunking some persistent myths about air transport and the Environment’. It was produced by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) - an international trade body representing over 240 airlines. The IATA are currently engaged in an ‘Environmental Communications Campaign’, supported by Airbus, Boeing, Pratt & Whitney and Rolls Royce - all primarily aircraft and aircraft engine manufacturers. This campaign aims to produce advertisements and material for airlines to use in their ‘corporate communications’. The literature on their website (accessible from here reproduces many of the un-referenced claims made above.


( is website that shortens lengthy web-addresses to a more manageable size)

[1] For example, ‘Predict and Decide: Aviation, Climate Change and UK policy,’ 2006, The Environmental Change Institute of the University of Oxford or
‘Contraction & Convergence: UK carbon emissions and the implications for UK air traffic,’ 2006, The Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research
[2] The source of the information in BIA’s report is the International Air Transport Association (IATA) an international trade body representing over 240 airlines. It is a word-for-word reprint of an IATA article from 2007 entitled ‘Debunking some persistent myths about air transport and the Environment’. It can be found here:
(in their version BIA added a picture of a smiling child with a paper aeroplane).
[3] ‘Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’
[4] ‘Aviation and the Global Atmosphere,’ 1999, The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
[5] ‘Fuel Efficiency of Commercial Aircraft: an overview of historical and future trends,’ 2005, Peeters & Hoolhorst
[6] ‘Fuel Efficiency of Commercial Aircraft…’ p.30
[7] figures quoted in ‘Aviation and the Global Atmosphere…’
[8] see ‘Predict and Decide…’
[9] ‘Predict and Decide…’ pp.19-20
[10] ‘Predict and Decide…’ p.22
[11] ‘Transport: Faq’ on The Climate Action for Europe website
[12] ‘The Hidden Cost of Flying,’ 2003, Brendon Sewill
[13] ‘Macquarie Airports lands a $953 million profit,’ August 29th 2007, The Sydney Morning Herald
[14] ‘The Hidden Cost of Flying,’ pp.18-19
[15] ‘The Hidden Cost of Flying,’ p.11
[16] ‘The Sky’s the Limit: Policies for sustainable aviation,’ 2003, Institute for Public Policy Research
[17] ‘The Sky’s the Limit…’ p.63
[18] see also ‘Pie in the sky - why the costs of airport expansion outweigh the benefits,’ AirportWatch
[19] ‘Contraction & Convergence: UK carbon emissions and the implications for UK air traffic’ 2006, Tyndall Centre for Climate change Research, p.3

A CAMPAIGN HAS BEGUN to address the impending expansion of Birmingham International and to put aviation into the context of climate change within the West-Midlands and within the ludicrous country-wide push by the government for increased activity at regional and international airports. Action must be taken if climate chaos is to be halted.

The campaign is in its initial stages. All support is welcomed. Register interest and get onto the co-ordination list to find out the latest at



Hide the following 4 comments

Derivation of 20% figure

10.09.2007 17:06

How is the estimate of flying being 20% of UK emissions, rather than 13%, derived? Is that based on the proportion of the flying whether i/o being done by UK citizens versus non-citizens, or UK residents versus non-residents, or how? Are domestic flights included?

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Good question

10.09.2007 20:41

The 13% figure used by the government does NOT include return flights to UK airports by UK residents.

From an airportwatch briefing, which explains it well : 'The method of calculation adopted by the government is to count emissions caused by all aircraft departing from UK airports. But 70% of passengers using UK airports are UK citizens, and it is more logical to say that the UK should be responsible for their outward and inward flights, but not to count any flights by foreign nationals.'

Thus, you can arrive at roughly 20% if you include return flights by UK residents.

I am in the process of acquiring a source for airportwatch's 70% too. The Civil Aviation Authority, who will be able to produce the best figures on this, only seem to have data in hard copy (the survey dates back to '97).

Admittedly, the 20% figure is an estimate. It should have perhaps been made clearer in the text. Subsequent copies will rectify this.

Very little research has been done into trying to attribute CO2 emissions from aviation to individual countries. The difficulties in getting accurate data are tremendous. A recent study from 2007 does exist, although you have to pay to get hold of it (three cheers for the free distribution of knowledge!). It can be ordered here: . Please spread the info if anyone decides to shell out... it'd be good to know what the study turns up.


Other issues

11.09.2007 00:22

It would be more proper to estimate that UK aviation use is approximately EQUIVALENT to 20% of total national emissions. I would say one should not say it IS approximately that, because such an estimate crosses the line into national emissions footprint, rather than national domestic emissions. The former as a whole is probably considerably greater than the latter, assuming more goods as a whole are grown or manufactured abroad for UK consumption than vice versa.

For proper calculation one should also consider the split of Britons' and non-Britons' flights according to haul length, time of day and of year; and air freight.

- Homepage:

calculation complications...

11.09.2007 12:05

... precisely, and these are just some of the difficulties in working it out! I think the phraseology 'approximately equivalent' is good though.

For me, it just all goes to show how much the UK relies (unecessarily) upon air travel and air freight, and how intimately connected - in a truly global sense - the aviation industry is with the to-and-fro of capitalism: the beast that is piloting us into a climatic nosedive!