By Paul Rincon
BBC News Online science staff
Environmentalists are disappointed by many proposals in the UK Government's White Paper on Aviation and say other measures do not go far enough.
Stansted expansion could destroy surrounding woodland
Tackling pollution and noise while coping with fast rising demand for air travel is a major challenge.
But the construction of new runways, particularly the one proposed for Stansted, would destroy hectares of ancient woodland, say campaigners.
Air passenger growth is expected to continue at levels of 3-5% per year.
Friends of the Earth claims this will push up the aviation contribution to the UK's carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) emissions to 10-12% by 2020 - from the current 5%.
If these figures prove correct, this may make it difficult for Britain to meet its commitments under the Kyoto Protocol to reduce the emissions of those gases thought to be warming the planet.
Already, ministers are having to grapple with how the expected growth in road traffic can be accommodated within the demands of the climate pact.
IMPACT OF EXPANSION ON POLLUTANTS
Heathrow: would affect 35,000 people (exceeding EU limit)
Stansted: would affect 20 people
Source: Department of Transport
The group claims the boom in air travel is sustained partly because the aviation industry pays no tax on the fuel it uses and argues that this amounts to a subsidy.
In the long term, Friends of the Earth has been urging the UK Government to commit to a tax on fuel for domestic flights.
A "congestion charge" on airlines would give ministers up to £9bn to invest in public transport and safer streets, according to the group.
In the short term, it has been pushing for the government to increase air passenger duty. But ministers reportedly thought the duty did little to persuade airlines to conserve fuel or cut pollution.
Friends of the Earth said some of the alternative economic measures proposed in the White Paper, such as greenhouse gas trading schemes and differential landing charges at airports according to noise levels and air quality, had potential.
IMPACT OF EXPANSION ON NOISE POLLUTION
Heathrow: would affect 333,000 people (up 26,000)
Stansted: would affect 8,000 people (up 2,000)
Source: Department of Transport
But it accused the government of abandoning its environmental responsibilities.
In a statement, Sir Tom Blundell, chairman of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, expressed his disappointment with the White Paper.
"Earlier this year, the government published an Energy White Paper setting out its strategy for tackling global climate change, and set challenging but necessary targets for greenhouse gas emissions.
"Today's Air Transport White Paper undermines those targets and continues to favour commerce over vital carbon dioxide reduction measures," said Sir Tom.
The Woodland Trust said the White Paper, "flies in the face of good sense". It added that the expansion was unnecessary and ill-placed.
Expansion of Stansted airport could destroy or damage 86 hectares (212 acres) of ancient woodland in surrounding areas of Essex, according to the trust.
The runway at Stansted could result in the total or partial clearing of six ancient woods.
One of these, East End Wood, is part of the larger Elsenham Woods, which has SSSI status. Three more could also be affected by road and rail links.
Ancient woodland is considered to be land continuously wooded for at least 400 years.
"Barely 2% of Britain has ancient woodland, which has more animal species of conservation concern than any other habitat," said a spokeswoman for The Woodland Trust.
"It's irreplaceable. You can't just say we'll go and plant a few more trees." About 390 hectares (963 acres) will be indirectly affected, the campaigners add.
"NOx [nitrogen oxides] emissions from aircraft act like a fertiliser. You are essentially dumping a load of fertiliser on the woodland every time an aircraft takes off," said Ed Pomfret, senior public affairs officer for The Woodland Trust.
This can help more hardy plants such as nettles to out-compete native species in the woodland.
David Markham, transport adviser for English Nature, said some of the government's proposals were to be welcomed, such as the rejection of plans to build a new airport at Cliffe Marshes in Kent.
"The downside is that individual site proposals such as the one at Stansted will be damaging to wildlife," he added.
"We will want to sit down after this and have a high level discussion with the government. They didn't do particularly robust appraisals for their consultation. So there's still a lot to play for."
Transport Secretary Alistair Darling, when unveiling the White Paper, said a new Heathrow runway and extra terminal facilities would only be considered if strict environmental conditions were met.
These included a zero increase in the area around the airport affected by aircraft noise. The expanded airport would also still have to meet tough EU limits on pollution.
Mr Darling said the aviation industry would probably have to use clean fuel for service vehicles, put pressure on airlines to deliver technology improvements, and introduce charges for driving to the airport to cut car pollution if these targets were to be met.
"I think the best way to reduce the environmental impact of aviation is firstly, over time, the industry does like any other polluter need to meet its costs (of cleaning up pollution)," he told the BBC.
"Secondly, you need to make sure that we do more to improve the environmental efficiency of aircraft engines... In relation to noise, there's more that can be done there."
The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) said the government had failed to "grasp the nettle of environmental sustainability for air transport".