05 May 2022

Tullamarine’s dream of a third runway is an emissions nightmare

by Mark Carter

Aviation is gearing up to be once more the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions. And MelbourneAirport is planning to play its part.

It’s now asking the federal transport minister to approve a third runway that will create cumulative emissions,estimated at around 160 million tonnes carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2-e) out to 2046 from additional flights.

Australia Pacific Airports (Melbourne) Pty Ltd (APAM), Melbourne Airport’s owner, seems to be in denial about our climate reality. It understates Third Runway emissions, its assessment of climate risk to the runway is cavalier, and it ignores realistic threats to passenger growth.

Emissions are underestimated in APAM’s Third Runway Major Development Plan (MDP). Now out for public feedback, the MDP claims annual warming from Third Runway flights in 2046 will be 0.348 million tonnes CO2-e. But the total annual warming of those flights will actually be fifty times greater.

APAM understates flight emissions in two ways:

  • It counts only carbon dioxide emissions, when total warming — from carbon dioxide, other greenhouse gasses, and contrails — is three times greater; and
  • It counts only landing and take-off (LTO) emissions, saying that emissions beyond LTO are “largely out of[its] control”. But emissions estimates by airports elsewhere do include total flight emissions. For example those of Heathrow and Bristol in the UK, In France the independent Autorit√© Environnementale requires airport extension projects to address all the emissions induced by the increase of their activity.

Estimates put the total flight emissions from the $1.9 billion Third Runway project at around 16 million tonnesCO2-e in 2046. For comparison, emissions from Australia’s dirtiest power station, AGL’s Loy Yang, were 18 million tonnes in 2019.

If APAM acknowledged this level of emissions, the Third Runway would, in their own words, become “a significant and irrecoverable estimated financial liability … [that could] include capital costs [and] negative reputation and media attention globally, with follow on effects including political implications, [with a probability that the] project is significantly delayed or cancelled”.

Can Third Runway flights be emissions free? Unfortunately, not in the next decade — our zero emissions deadline for reducing the risk of overshooting climate targets. Here’s why:

  • Emissions reductions from fuel efficiency improvements are overwhelmed by emissions from more and more flights; and
  • Renewables-electrified planes, aviation’s only emissions free option, are years away for short-haul and a pipe-dream for long-haul flights.

APAM assessed risks from climate change in 2070 to the operation of the Third Runway in “a high-emission, business-as-usual scenario … [or] a 4°[C] future”. It concluded “that none of the risks from climate change … is rated as high or extreme, and no impacts are rated as major adverse.”

This assessment by APAM displays an amateurish approach to risk management and the coming period of warming-induced global disruption, as well as an astounding lack of understanding about the fundamentals of life ona hotter planet: at 4°C , those Victorians, amongst the perhaps billion remaining globally, would have survival on their minds, not a European holiday. Of a 4°C future, Kevin Anderson, Professor of Energy and Climate Change in theSchool of Engineering at the University of Manchester in the UK, says it “is incompatible with an organised global community, is likely to be beyond ‘adaptation’, is devastating to the majority of ecosystems and has a high probability of not being stable”.

APAM says “expected” growth in passenger demand necessitates a Third Runway. But its growth forecasts werecompleted in 2019, before Covid-19 changed expectations for the future of the aviation industry like nothing before.

New factors now affecting flight demand growth include Covid-induced flight wariness, the growth of online businessmeetings, the spread of new more infectious viruses, and global warming factors such as the climate-concerned public choosing to reduce emissions by flying less, and regulatory restraints on flight emissions.

But when given the opportunity to confirm that the impact of these factors had been included in their modelling, Andrew Lund, APAM’s Head of Communications and Community Engagement, declined to do so.

APAM say its forecasts are the flight numbers that fit a “recovery scenario” the industry wishes to achieve. Yetit is sufficiently uncertain about when the recovery will arrive that it wants the mandatory completion date for the Third Runway delayed by five years.

Aviation exists in a world that — in word if not yet deed — wants to rapidly reduce emissions. A world whose existing fossil fuel infrastructure is enough to take us past the Paris warming limit. A world where not building any new coal, gas or oil infrastructure is an imperative.

Indeed, the MDP acknowledges long term significant risks to the operation of a third runway from both regulatory and market responses to climate change such as “emissions reporting obligations”, “climate-related regulation” and “changing customer behaviour”.

In effect acting to protect the public from the existential risk of runaway warming threatens APAM’s business. Put like that, this expansion of fossil-fuel-intensive aviation — largely a luxury industry for the better off among us —can’t be justified. Australia’s next federal transport minister should decline approval of the Third Runway MDP.

Mark Carter is a member of Flight Free Australia, a No 3rd Tulla Runway campaign coalition partner, and author of  The elephant in the sky.