The need for a UK aviation environmental and economic strategy

Posted: 29 July 2020 | | No comments yet

Earlier in 2020, the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning & Transport (ADEPT) called for a national strategy on the aviation sector to tackle both climate change and the economy. Mark Kemp, Chair of ADEPT’s Transport and Connectivity Board, explains why a national strategy is needed.

National strategy required for UK aviation

The aviation sector is a fundamental part of the UK’s transport mix and appropriate, sustainable transport infrastructure investment is essential. However, in the context of the UK Parliament’s declaration of a ‘Climate Change Emergency’ in May 2019, which has forced environmental issues to the top of all government agendas, and a general lack of coordination of mode-specific transport strategies at a spatial level, ADEPT believes that the aviation sector would benefit from the creation of a national strategy.

In terms of the future ambitions of the aviation sector, there is an intrinsic conflict between the expansion of aviation facilities, associated with economic growth, national prosperity and international trade, and sector climate commitments which aim to cut carbon emissions to net zero by 2050.

UK-wide national strategy for aviation

As part of a UK-wide national strategy for aviation, decisions on strategic national aviation infrastructure and associated growth plans could in turn be considered in the context of the whole transport ecosystem, and aim to balance shorter-term economic prosperity with longer-term climate priorities. The creation of an overarching vision and strategy would give a clear focus for the sector, tying together siloed local strategies and guiding complementary future planning and investment.

Aviation is a particularly difficult issue for local authorities, who deal with the reality of balancing climate emergency declarations and growth proposals concurrently. Despite the UK government’s commitment to a low-carbon travel sector by 2050 and the need for swift and decisive action to tackle emissions, air quality and congestion associated with all major UK airports, at present there is limited policy-led action to create a new and sustainable aviation industry. Councils are consequently lacking support and guidance in dealing with conflicting tensions between competing agendas. A national aviation strategy, which also includes reference to highway networks, rail and ports should, in turn, set out how these networks integrate with each other. It is vital that a strategy ensures sustainable access to these gateways and places emphasis on creating alternatives to aviation travel, where possible, to reduce lifestyle and wider system reliance on the sector.

When considering airport slots for example, a national aviation strategy framework should highlight the unfavorability of routes where there is high-speed rail capacity. Airport expansion should be focused in those areas where alternative transport options are limited, where there is sufficient passenger demand to justify aviation facilities and where there is scope for the implementation of supporting surface access infrastructure. This could encourage more rapid development of high-speed rail networks, improving connectivity between key regional centres, cities and airports.

The wider decarbonisation agenda

In the context of the wider decarbonisation agenda, a national aviation strategy is necessary to outline the need for demonstrable, tangible and visionary action across the sector, highlighting that there are opportunities to lead locally and influence globally. This is particularly the case with Brexit given the important position of airports as international gateways to UK plc and ensuring national strategy is aligned with international agreements and schemes such as the UN’s CORSIA Scheme.

Exiting the EU provides an ideal opportunity for the UK to take the lead on these critical environmental issues and implement both supply and demand side measures. The UK, for example, should consider levying a fuel tax (as is the case in the U.S., Canada and Japan) as a phased alternative to Air Passenger Duty. In addition to creating stronger price signals on unused fuel, taxation changes could drive innovation by stimulating airlines to lighten loads through better design. Both have the potential to reduce the carbon footprint and environmental damage of aviation.

Connecting nations together across the world

A national aviation strategy is also necessary to acknowledge the role of digital connectivity in reducing or removing the need to travel across modes in the first place and should be promoted widely as an alternative way to access opportunities. Where a reduction in aviation reliance is not possible through the provision of alternative transport choices, the full impact, including environmental, could be costed and applied at a national level, for example frequent flyer levies.

Airports play a vital role in supporting both local and national growth, and creating travel choice. Therefore, the appropriate role of aviation in improving accessibility to poorly connected places needs strategic consideration and planning. A national strategy is necessary because there is a current lack of aviation strategy coordination at a spatial level across the UK, and a need for a set framework for national decision making.

When planning aviation routes, a UK-wide understanding of the location of existing aviation facilities and capacities is key to identifying where the gaps in the distribution of airports are across the country and where road and rail links are poor. This deeper understanding of the potential for aviation to reduce national accessibility disparities is key to providing the foundations for decisions to improve connectivity between key regional centres, cities and airports.   

Aviation infrastructure

A national aviation strategy may also reduce the perceived lack of transparency often associated with aviation planning processes compared with the processes associated with road and rail projects, boosting national accountability. Individual airport proposals are commonly put forward independently of each other and often are solely based on individual business decisions, evidencing lack of strategic national coordination between individual airport planning applications. To align the growth aspirations of the aviation sector across the country with the interests of the whole nation, direct government oversight and strategic management is required.

The UK 2070 Commission report reiterating that infrastructure investment traditionally tends to reinforce differential spatial trajectories and favour London, management of aviation growth also has a key role to play in reducing wider spatial inequalities in the UK1.  Leaving the industry to determine whether and when applications are brought forward has the potential to neglect wider infrastructure requirements along with other economic, social and environmental drivers and implications.

A national aviation strategy is arguably also necessary to acknowledge the surface transport implications of airport access which are often felt over an area that far exceeds the planning boundary. There are significant cross boundary air quality, noise, congestion and wider implications of cars, taxis, buses and logistics into and around airports which need consideration. A coordinated national strategy is the appropriate mechanism through which public transport alternatives that serve passengers and employees at airports and in supporting industries can start to be consistently transformed, enabling wider communities to also develop concurrently.  

ADEPT believes that a national aviation strategy is required to cover all the implications of air travel, ultimately to provide an overarching strategy to support future investment cases whilst balancing environmental concerns. Without a national aviation strategy there is likely to be a more piecemeal approach to investment, less coordinated efforts to reach emissions targets and delays to future scheme implementation. We believe that collaboration between all elements of the aviation sector – commercial, government, local authorities and sub-national transport bodies – is needed to balance business, environmental, economic and community needs.


  1. UK 2070 Commission (2019). Measuring Spatial Inequality in the UK: What We Know and What We Should Know?. [online] Manchester: The Spatial Policy & Analysis Laboratory at The Manchester Urban Institute. Available at:
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