Manchester’s Airport carbon emissions dwarf all other sectors in our city – and we own it. It’s time we face up to this moral dilemma and plot a different path for flying on our patch

I’ve taken a look at an important new piece of work that is out from the Manchester Climate Change Agency (MCCA).

The Manchester Climate Change Framework 2020-2025 sets out the huge challenge facing our city – to halve carbon emissions in the next five years – and tells us:

‘Manchester is ‘not currently on track to deliver its climate change objectives despite many actions across the city’.

There is quite a lot to take from the report despite the fact much of it’s not new, useful as it is (read my Twitter summary thread here).

But for me the main takeaway is that it puts Manchester’s Airport emissions firmly in the ‘official spotlight’ for first time.

The report shows clearly how emissions from flying/Manchester Airport (on which there’s been very little officially-sanctioned debate thus far) dwarf those from direct emissions, which have been focus of most of the city’s climate planning to date.

Direct emissions in Manchester versus Airport/flying and indirect emissions

I think this highlights the huge moral dilemma we face in Manchester, where Greater Manchester residents are in effect, majority owners of what is the UK’s third largest airport.

That’s an airport that currently plans to massively grow passengers by a third by 2030, which will surely result in an increase in emissions way above our Paris climate agreement commitments (and indeed they also make a mockery of the city’s own targets on direct emissions, which must be kept to 15m tonnes – but less if Manchester’s aviation emissions are above the assumptions made when arriving at this target (which they currently are)!

All regional airports currently have plans to expand as there is no UK-wide aviation carbon emissions plan in place.

And while this week’s decision to rule Heathrow’s proposed third runway as unlawful due to incompatibility with the UK government’s climate commitments is brilliant news, as was the bold decision by councillors in Bristol and Essex (Stanstead) to decide to reject proposed extensions there….

…this may simply mean that regional airports like Manchester are rubbing their hands in glee at the share of air traffic that might now come their way instead.

Especially because in Manchester, it appears our airport largely already has planning permission for its expansion following approval by the council in 2016.

Many campaigners in our city believe airport owners Manchester City Council (35% stake) & other 9 GM councils (29% stake) now have a moral duty to carry out an urgent review of this current huge expansion plan.  (the other 35.5% belongs to Australian pension fund-owned who are registered in the offshore tax haven of the Cayman Islands, so while theirs is the majority stake – it presumably isn’t if the GM councils vote together).

Without the apparent need for planning permission, there seems far less legal recourse available to reverse this strategy, which is at direct odds with our ecological crisis, as councillors in Bristol and Uttlesford have realised.

When Uttlesford Council heard the Stansted airport plan, Councillor Colin Day questioned Manchester Airports Group (MAG)’s motivations to expand:

“MAG’s biggest private shareholder is registered in the Cayman Islands. There are only two possible reasons for that: tax avoidance and secrecy. So, what’s the priority – the health and quality of life of our local residents, or increased profits for a secretive Cayman Islands company?”

He didn’t mention the other shareholders – us (in effect).

I know there are Manchester councillors who are concerned at this situation and at February’s recent Climate Scrutiny Committee it seemed to be agreed that the committee would ask for some investigation on what options were available for things like a frequent flyer levy that might generate income and perhaps manage demand more than so aggressively increasing it.

To me – Manchester Airport should now become a real focus for airport campaigning in the UK, as there is a real opportunity to use public ownership to plot a different path for our airport, one that takes account of the climate crisis,  not flies in the face of it.

(For instance, look at the tactics used by the likes of  KLM which is now voluntarily encouraging people not to fly unless they have to, a seeming acceptance profits may not be so large to take their share of the carbon hit.)

A joint campaign approach worked very well for Heathrow, where the likes of PlanB Earth, Plane Stupid, Stay Grounded,  Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and others teamed up to mount the legal challenges over many years.

There is one key initial opening, which is Manchester City Council’s proposed Local Plan, which once passed rules all future planning policy, and is currently out for consultation.

The plan currently cites growing the airport and surrounding ‘village’ as a key ambition and such statements are sprinkled liberally through the plan – and so it’s vital people join forces in numbers to voice objection to this unchecked growth in aviation on our patch.

While aviation fuel will be around longer than other surface vehicle fossil fuels because alternatives are not yet in place, there seems to have been so little work done planning out how to manage aviation emissions.

Instead it seems a bun fight for who can get their airport to the front of the queue to take the biggest slice of whatever UK amount is eventually agreed.

I believe given that in effect local residents own the airport, we must lay this huge moral dilemma out into the public arena for further debate.

In effect – we are an aviation leader.

Of course it’s not easy and there are no quick fix solutions; the city council now makes up to £62m a year from its airport dividend, a council that has had to make  savings of £372m since 2010 and for which the council tax comes nowhere near covering the cost of business , and all the other nine GM councils get a vital few million pounds too.

But if public bodies, owned by the people, can’t make the right decisions, then who can?

How do our citizens & councillors feel about making money – much needed as it is – from a strategy that will lead to a massive growth in emissions which are already causing climate breakdown?

Should we not be planning right now for how we transition away from relying on growing airport income (directly linked to rising Co2) and onto other sources instead? Or at least plot a more moderate growth trajectory than 28m passengers a year to 38m by the end of the decade?

The UK aviation industry – which accounts for about 6% of carbon emissions in the UK – has announced a somewhat incredible plan to become carbon neutral by 2050 – while still presiding over a 70% growth in flying.

This seems a nonsense – especially when the improvements in technology that have made planes much  more efficient in recent times have simply been more than cancelled out by the growth in global flights (1.1bn per year in 1992 to 4.2bn in 2017).

(for instance: while ‘average fuel consumption per passenger in 2017 was 3.4 Litres/100 km (69 mpg‑US) (24% less than 2005), as the air traffic grew by 60% to 1,643 billion passenger kilometres = CO₂ emissions were up 16% to 163m tonnes for 99.8 g/km CO₂ per passenger’.  (source Wikipedia)  (more good aviation/climate change stats here).)

Greenpeace rightly denounced it as fanciful greenwash.

It would seem impossible to do without reducing current growth plans at all those regional airports including Manchester.

We know many flights are avoidable – such as this albeit small survey that found that just under half the flights taken by men aged 20 to 45 in 2019 were for stag dos and another larger study which showed that 1% of residents in the UK took one fifth of all flights in 2017, while 48% of the population did not take a single flight abroad in that year.

The figures are even more startling when one looks globally – with estimates of the number of people who have still never flown as high as 94% .

So it’s time we in Manchester faced up to this ethical question:

Is it ok for us to preside over and profit from an activity that causes 3.5m tonnes of carbon emissions a year and rising,  and to no small degree fuelled by a very active affluent elite?

Especially when big individual sacrifices will have to be made by the many to cut the 2m tonnes a year we emit directly (eg costs of solar panels, home insulation, gas boiler replacements, car scrapping etc), and yet flying frequently is still an activity largely for the privileged few.



There is one remaining public  Local Plan consultation event where you can  talk to council staff: Mon 2 Mar, 12-6.30pm, Central Library, Manchester.

But you can comment online until 5pm Fri 3 Apr  (note you may want to save your answers in a separate document as you go as past consultations have not sent a record afterwards of what was submitted).


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