Air travel

Air travel has opened up our world, linking distant people and places like never before. This global networking has come at a cost because flying is one of the most polluting ways to travel. Expanding airports like Heathrow when we’re trying to limit the effects of climate change doesn’t make sense. Instead, we need to make train travel cheaper and more efficient, and contain demand by making those who fly frequently pay more.


Our world has come to rely on air travel. For many people, it’s the only way to see their families and the rise of budget airlines has made foreign weekend breaks very tempting. But, given the dangers of climate change, we need to be reducing the numbers of planes in the sky, not making space for more by expanding airports. 

Like anything powered by oil, planes release carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases which contribute to climate change. At high altitudes, these gases have a greater warming effect than at ground level so the impact of aviation is much greater than that from CO2 on its own. Planes also contribute to air pollution – around Heathrow, legal air pollution limits have been breached for years.

About 15% of the UK’s climate impact comes from aviation. Building new runways, as has been proposed for London’s Gatwick and Heathrow airports, will undermine efforts to meet our legally-binding commitments on climate change. It will also send a signal that the government backs airport expansion elsewhere when we need to be slashing our emissions.

A new runway at Heathrow will increase the number of flights by over a third from what is already Europe’s busiest airport. It will make it the biggest single source of emissions in the UK. It will also cost us billions – new rail and road connections costing £18.4 billion will be needed to service an expanded airport. Heathrow’s owners have said they will only pay £1 billion of this and the rest of the bill will be paid by us taxpayers.

Airport expansion doesn’t add up

The truth is that a third runway at Heathrow isn’t needed. A quarter of existing flights are to destinations less than 500 km away, which can be reached by train. Air travel can produce up to 10 times more emissions than rail so the huge cost of expanding Heathrow would be better spent improving and reducing the cost of other forms of transport, including increased train capacity (assuming rail planning is handled properly as well).

The claim that cheaper air travel has allowed people with less money to go abroad doesn’t hold up either. Research has shown that the growth in air travel has allowed people who could afford to fly anyway to fly more often – 70% of flights are taken by just 15% of the UK population. Increases in flying over the past few decades have largely been driven by wealthy people taking more flights. That’s why Greenpeace supports the idea of a Frequent Flier Levy which taxes people more heavily the more they fly. 

Government policy on airports has flip-flopped. In 2009, Gordon Brown’s government was in favour of a new runway. But nearly 100,000 people blocked Heathrow’s expansion plans by becoming beneficial owners of a plot of land in the middle of the proposed site. A year later, the incoming coalition scrapped these plans and we thought we’d won. But in 2018, a third runway got government backing once again, even though the need to cut our emissions is even more urgent.

Efforts to stop Heathrow’s third runway are still ongoing. Four councils around Heathrow and the Mayor of London have launched a legal challenge, and another four cases are also in the works. It’s time to put the brakes on airport expansion once and for all.