Dutch government issues world-first cap on flights from European hub

Schiphol airport, the third busiest in Europe, will be required to limit traffic to below its pre-pandemic peak, to reduce pollution

Schiphol airport in the Netherlands is set to permanently cut the number of flights in a bid to reduce noise and air pollution. Campaigners described the decision as a “historic breakthrough” that could help curb emissions from the aviation industry.

From the end of 2023, Schiphol airport, the third busiest in Europe in terms of passenger traffic, will limit the maximum number of flights each year to 440,000, 12% less than in 2019, the Dutch ministry of transport said in a statement on Friday.

The flight cuts aim to restore “the balance between a well-operating international airport, the business climate, and the interests of a better and healthier living environment”, transport minister Mark Harbers said in the statement.

The government said the airport, which has faced staff shortages this year, must rein in its growth as the country seeks to reduce CO2 emissions and pollutants such as nitrogen oxide. The Netherlands previously cut the national speed limit to 100 km per hour (62 mph) to reduce nitrogen pollution.

“This is a difficult message for the aviation sector that is still recovering from the far-reaching consequences of the coronavirus pandemic,” Harbers said.

Dutch airline KLM described the decision as “highly detrimental” and said “it does not tally with the desire to retain a strong hub function” for Schiphol. The airport said it supports a “well-thought-out approach” that helps it achieve its goal of “connecting the Netherlands with the world as an increasingly quieter and cleaner Schiphol.”

Campaigners welcomed the decision, saying it sent a clear signal that curbing aviation demand is necessary to meet climate goals.

UN chief Antonio Guterres has called for international shipping and aviation targets to be radically strengthenedin line with the Paris Agreement goal to limit global warming to 1.5C.

Aviation accounts for 2.1% of global emissions. The sector has agreed to an “aspirational goal” to make air travel growth carbon-neutral from 2020, establishing a carbon offsetting scheme to buy emissions reductions in other sectors.

Leo Murray, director of innovation at the NGO Possible, told Climate Home News it was a “world first development which could be hugely significant to global climate efforts.”

“Due to the extreme technical challenges of decarbonising air travel and the slow progress to date, it is almost certain that reducing overall flight numbers – at least temporarily – will be required at the global level to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement,” said Murray.

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Murray added it was unlikely that other airports would follow suit, but the flight cap weakened the argument for expansion of rival hubs such as Heathrow.

It is the first time that a government has announced a flight cap, Koenraad Backers, director of aviation at the Dutch NGO Nature & Environment, told Climate Home News.

“It has always been growth, growth, growth up until now,” Backers said. “Tolerated is no longer the order of the day; rules also apply to the aviation industry.”

Greenpeace, which lobbied for Schiphol to reduce airport traffic, described the move as a “historic breakthrough.”

“It is good that the Cabinet realizes that Schiphol has, for years, been flying beyond all boundaries when it comes to noise, nitrogen, ultrafine particles and the climate,” Dewi Zloch, aviation expert at Greenpeace in the Netherlands, said in a statement.

Zloch said the cuts don’t go far enough to curb aviation emissions. “This is the impetus. Schiphol needs to finally come up with a plan that takes the Paris Agreement into account,” she said.

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