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Sustainable Development

Over the past half century, air transport has played a very significant role in the development of the Global economy, influencing patterns of trade and migration and supporting the development of multi-national political alliances such as the European Union. It has fuelled the growth of the international tourism industry, enabled the global sourcing of goods and services, and promoted mobility for employment and learning. Having contributed to the development of a Global society, aviation now also plays an important role in maintaining social, family and cultural links in an increasingly disparate world.

Current troubles faced by the industry, arising from the price of oil and the financial downturn, belie an ongoing growth in demand because with current models of economic development, world class city-regions need Global air route networks to support development and remain competitive.  The sustainable development challenge for aviation (Upham 2001, Upham et al. 2003) arises from the fact that  while these socio-economic benefits are significant, so too are the environmental ‘costs’  (Tunstall-Pedoe et al. 1996) and these costs threaten the future growth of the industry at both a local (airport) and global level.

Many airports are already subject to operational constraints linked to their environmental impacts, while others fail to gain planning approval for future infrastructure growth, either as a result of the environmental consequences of the development itself or the additional traffic that would arise from it. The recent announcement by the UK Government that it would not support the construction of new runways at London Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted airports is a case in point. This has given rise to the concept of airport environmental capacity (Thomas et al. 2002, Upham et al. 2003).  Historically, environmental capacity constraints at airports have been associated with aircraft noise disturbance (Thomas et al. 2010, Hume et al. 2002), exceedences of local air quality regulatory limits (Peace et al. 2003) or destruction of sensitive habitats. However in recent years the issue of climate change has emerged as a new potential constraint to growth, and some airports now anticipate challenges in securing adequate supplies of energy and water to meet customer and service partner requirements(Thomas et al. 2002).

At a global level, meanwhile carbon dioxide emissions from aircraft (Rogers et al. 2003) and peak oil pose significant new threats to the long term development of the entire air transportation industry. Globally, aviation is responsible for 2-3%[1] of anthropogenic CO2 emissions (IPCC 1999), but these are growing at a time when Governments seek to reduce greenhouse gasses  to prevent ‘dangerous climate change’. Indeed some argue that an ongoing aviation development could put this objective at risk and that further airport growth should be opposed.

The fact that aviation will remain a legacy user of carbon fuels and producer of greenhouse gas emissions therefore presents a significant challenge for policy makers given its importance to current patterns of development and the continuing popularity of air travel with the public (Shaw and Thomas 2004). These threats are, indeed,  so significant that at this point in time it is uncertain as to the role the industry will play in the Global economy/society of the second half of the 21st Century  (Thomas et al. 2011).

The research agenda developed within CATE is focused on aviation sustainability in its broadest sense, but some research themes address this issue in more detail.