The Scottish Government has adopted aviation industry claims that expanding Heathrow airport will not lead to increased emissions from Scotland, internal documents show.

Just two years ago, the government calculated that adding a third runway at Heathrow would lead to an additional 600,000 tonnes of climate-warming carbon emissions.

However, a memo prepared for the First Minister last October, obtained by The Ferret, now claims that “there is nothing to suggest that LHR [Heathrow] expansion will have a negative impact on emissions attributable to Scotland”. 

Environmental groups say it is “worrying to see how closely aligned the Scottish Government appears to be with the aviation lobby,” and argue that the document “casts doubt on how serious the Scottish Government is about reaching its climate targets”. 

The advice to the First Minister, dated October 2021, claims that “emissions from our LHR flights should decrease over time” because of efforts by the industry “to move to…zero emission aircraft” and “introduce sustainable aviation fuels”.

The Herald:

Green groups believe this assessment is dubious. Campaign group the Aviation Environment Federation says the claim that Scotland’s emissions wouldn’t increase as a result of a third runway - even if there’s an increase in flights between Heathrow and Edinburgh - “suggest[s] some very odd carbon accounting somewhere along the line”. 

Scottish Ministers have long backed the construction of a third runway at Heathrow, signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the airport committing their support in 2016.  However, since the government’s declaration that we are facing a  global climate emergency, its support for expanding the airport has come under increasing criticism from green groups and opposition parties. The have attacked the government’s approach as “backroom deal” in support of a “climate wrecking project”.

The Ferret has also obtained the minutes of a meeting between the Minister for Transport and the CEO of Heathrow Airport, held in September 2021, just weeks before the publication of the Scottish Government’s aviation consultation. The notes record that Heathrow sees the Scottish Government’s objectives as the “same as theirs”.

During the meeting – which took place less than two months before Glasgow hosted a major international climate summit – Heathrow Airport “offered to help with difficult challenges of balancing economy and decarbonisation,” highlighting the role of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) as a “big thing.” However, critics have warned that SAF is still under development, and “will not be ready to be deployed at scale before the 2030s or even later”.  Marie Ferdelman, spokesperson for sustainability charity Transform Scotland, said Scotland needs to see significant, short-term reductions in flying to meet its climate targets, as low-carbon technologies would not be ready at scale soon enough.

“The advice provided to the First Minister on the expansion of Heathrow does not make the scale and speed of emissions reductions that is necessary clear, nor does it address when low carbon technologies will be available and ready to deliver the required carbon reductions, “ she said.

The Herald:

“Whether or not this is deliberate, it certainly obscures that action on aviation emissions is required now.

“It is worrying to see how closely aligned the Scottish Government appears to be with the aviation lobby, particularly in the run up to COP26 and the publication of the deeply flawed consultation on the new aviation strategy, and it casts doubt on how serious the Scottish Government is about reaching its climate targets.”

Cait Hewitt, policy director at the Aviation Environment Federation, described claims that Scotland’s emissions wouldn’t increase as a result of the third runway as “pretty desperate” and said they suggested “some very odd carbon accounting somewhere along the line.”

She called on the Scottish Government to “move on” from its memorandum of understanding with Heathrow, and ”focus on how to bring the aviation sector into line with Scotland’s ambitious climate agenda.”

However a spokesperson for Transport Scotland, the Scottish Government’s transport agency, said that the decision to allow expansion was taken at Westminster. ‘Hubs’ such as Heathrow and Amsterdam would remain important to Scotland, they claimed.  “We know the impact aviation has on emissions and that transport is currently one of the biggest contributors to carbon emissions. Every sector and industry needs to do more to cut its emissions – transport and aviation is no exception. But we will also always need people, goods and services to move around here in Scotland, across the UK and of course, internationally.”

A Heathrow spokesperson said: “Aviation can and will decarbonise, which will supercharge the opportunities for Global Britain. Heathrow is aiming to make 2019 the year of peak carbon with stretching, but realistic targets to cut emissions both on the ground and in the air in the next decade.  “But to achieve our goals, policy support from governments across the UK is essential - most pressingly, scaling-up Scotland’s production of and wider use of Sustainable Aviation Fuel.

“We have always worked closely with political leaders to maximise the benefits of expansion including frequent, sustainable and stable connectivity into the UK’s only hub and beyond, into global markets. We will continue to do so to ensure that any expansion of Heathrow delivers for the whole of the UK including people and business in Scotland.”

Last month it was reported that the number of passengers travelling through Heathrow airport fell to 19.4 million in 2021, its worst year  in the airport’s history according to its chief executive, John Holland-Kaye.

The airport said at the time that it had reported a pre-tax loss of £1.8bn despite predicting numbers would double this year as people took advantage of Covid-19 restrictions lifting to book summer holidays.

But despite the dramatic fall in passengers it has insisted that plans for the third runway remain firmly on the table.  In February the airport also unveiled an updated sustainability strategy, setting 2050 targets for zero-carbon operations and flights as well as zero-waste operations and fully sustainable water consumption. There was also a commitment to ensure the third runway would be carbon neutral, mainly by using offsetting.

But campaigners have discussed the plans as “greenwashing”. 

This story is a Ferret Investigation, co-published with The Herald. Support our  journalism by becoming a member for £5 a month.