No ban on night flights and private jets

A government plan to ban night flights and private jets at Schiphol Airport has stalled. According to reports, the government still intends to press ahead with reducing the size of Schiphol to 440,000 flights per year, but it will do so on a slower timescale than previously planned. Airlines wanted more time before the restrictions were implemented in order to make their businesses more sustainable. They have now got that extra time. While the government had already secured legal approval to shrink the airport’s capacity to 460,000 flights per year, the next step down to 440,000 has encountered obstacles.

According to European legislation, restrictions of this kind must take a ‘balanced approach’, giving all stakeholders, which in this case includes airlines and the EU, a fair chance to have their say. Some companies, like KLM, used the opportunity to express their dissatisfaction. EU law also states alternative proposals must be fully considered during this review period. The delay to the government’s plan suggests Brussels may believe other options have not been sufficiently explored.

While the government’s eagerness to help tackle climate change is laudable, with a policy like shrinking airports and reducing flights, there are downsides to consider. For instance, if flight costs increase, people on lower incomes might have less access to foreign holidays, exacerbating economic inequality. Furthermore, changes which might seem environmentally beneficial can be counter-productive. For example, if restricting flights leads to people to make journeys using petrol-powered cars instead, the outcome might be even more greenhouse gas emissions.

These potential costs are likely a key reason why the EU has objected to the speed of the government’s plan to shrink Schiphol. It is vital wide-ranging changes to industry and society are examined holistically before being implemented. It is easy for changes motivated by the desire to help the planet to fall into traps like this. For example, around two percent of the Dutch population is vegan, partially motivated by environmental considerations, which polling consistently shows is an important issue for many.

Meat and dairy production causes greenhouse gas emissions, which fuel climate change. However, when going vegan it is important to check where your food comes from. Air-transported fruit and vegetables can create more greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram than some types of meat. Some fruits, like blueberries and strawberries, are often imported to Europe by air when local fruits are out of season. Asparagus has the highest foodprint of all vegetables, with 5.3kg of carbon dioxide being produced for every kilogram of asparagus, mainly because much of it is imported by air from Peru. Still, eating vegan is undoubtedly better for the planet when you avoid foods that have been flown in by plane.

This is just one example of how a well-intentioned decision, designed to help the environment, can do more harm than good. Whether it is restricting flight numbers or adopting a plant-based diet, big changes with environmental motivations require thorough analysis. That is why European legislation exists. By delaying the implementation of the Schiphol plan, it is ensuring proper scrutiny. For its part, the government will surely continue fighting its corner against the aviation industry. The eventual outcome is likely to be a compromise.

In the meantime, it is possible innovation will help solve the problem. Since it is in airlines’ own interest to make their businesses more environmentally sustainable, there is a movement to create new sustainable fuel technologies. Even the biggest fossil fuel companies in the world have dedicated significant resources to sustainable aviation fuel research, such as biofuels. In fact, the EU has thrown its weight behind this initiative too by mandating through a new law hat 70% of all aviation fuel must be sustainable by 2050.

If efforts to innovate sustainable fuel succeed and flights eventually become emissions-neutral, the political and legal wrangling over shrinking airport capacity in Schiphol will probably become redundant. Whatever happens on this issue, it is clear that both the government and private businesses can do more to help fight climate change.

Written by Jason Reed