Updated: Sep 29, 2021
For most governments around the world, airport infrastructure is synonymous with development, integration, competitiveness and economic momentum. Citizens often see these projects as a direct expression of a better quality of life, including the possibility of expanding tourism in their region and generating more jobs. So far, so good. However, it is important to analyze to what extent all these claims are true.
As Spain's population and the region's economy expand, the need for a more environmentally friendly airport infrastructure has also grown.
According to the European Union (EU), all infrastructure plays a key role in sustainable development. Today, as the world seeks to achieve ambitious climate change goals, it is essential to have airport infrastructure projects that aim for sustainability.
The expansion of Josep Tarradellas "El Prat" Airport, located in Barcelona, is a project where sustainability and economic development are divorced. Following reports that the runway extension would significantly damage the "La Ricarda" nature reserve, the controversy has only grown, and environmental groups are active in their efforts to prevent the multi-million dollar project from going ahead.
Where does the controversy originate?
Last August, the Spanish government and the Catalan regional government agreed to allocate 1.7 billion euros for the expansion of Barcelona's main airport, a project that will be carried out by AENA, the country's airport operator. This sum of money belongs to the 140 billion euros that the Spanish government will receive from the EU's post-pandemic recovery fund. This means that the renovation of the airport still depends on the approval of the European Commission.
However, the main rejection of the initiative stems from the environmental impact that the airport expansion may generate. AENA plans to extend the third runway by 500 meters and build a satellite terminal, which would mean invading La Ricarda, a pond protected by the Natura 2000 network.
In addition, the extension would increase the frequency of flights considerably, specifically to 90 flights per hour. This would mean an increase in noise pollution of Gavà and Castelldefels.
How does airport expansion harm the environment?
Environmental leaders have entered into a debate with the national government over the need to protect the wetlands and lagoon near the airport. Opponents point out that the reduction in air traffic, generated by the pandemic, will increase due to the climate change crisis.
Critics of the proposal, including some local city council leaders, point out that, in addition to the environmental impact, the Province of Catalonia already has Lleida, Girona and Reus, three unused airports.
El Prat is located in an area of high ecological potential. In fact, the Llobregat delta, located in the vicinity of the airport, is the third most important wetland area in Catalonia. La Ricarda is considered one of the few wetlands that is still "alive" in such an urbanized area. Initially, the airport project destroyed part of this rural area, catalogued by many experts as "the tip of the iceberg" of a very complex ecosystem.
The residents of El Prat, Gavà and Castelldefels have been protesting sonic pollution and a better quality of life for at least 13 years. Added to this is the action of multiple environmental organizations that oppose mass tourism and seek to make climate justice a reality.
One of the ideas behind the expansion lies in the possibility of Barcelona's El Prat being at the forefront of long-haul international flights, so that it can compete with airports such as Dubai or Singapore.
Aena, an entity in which the Spanish government holds a 51% stake, claims that the expansion will increase the airport's capacity from 55 to 72 million passengers.
For their part, the PSOE and JuntsxCat defend the project on the grounds that 85,000 direct jobs will be created, in addition to the eventual growth of the region's GDP. The government has said that part of the investment will also be used to improve the area's rail network, which would boost other forms of transport that generate less pollution.
What does the European Commission say?
Although it is known that air transport is one of the most environmentally damaging, the national executive has sent a message of reassurance to the public, and has stated that they will comply with all environmental requirements as part of the government's green agenda. This would include the use of fuels that are more "respectful" of nature, according to Brussels' suggestion.
The European Commission is aware of the situation, and has suggested that all EU countries should ascertain the environmental impact of any project on land, water or other natural habitats. Virginijus Sinkevicius, European Commissioner for the Environment, warned that for the project to receive the go-ahead from Brussels, it must address all the shortcomings in the Llobregat delta.
And the solution?
Last September 8, the proposal was halted due to differences between the Generalitat and the national government. Zeroport, the platform that brings together hundreds of organizations and environmental groups that oppose the project, has had a first victory in this arduous struggle. Pedro Sánchez announced that, after a meeting with the Catalan leader Pere Aragonès, it was decided that there is no consensus on the possibility of reversing the investment. Thus, the expansion will be "parked" until further notice.
Whereas more than 20 years ago air travel was something special for the masses, today it is normal travel. Aviation generates a significant portion of the planet's greenhouse gases, and if we add to this the fact that airports leave their neighbors exposed to noise pollution and the destruction of ecosystems, the climate crisis does not look good for the future.
The suspension of the project is part of the efforts of environmentalists, but it also represents the possibility of a better quality of life for the species that surround El Prat and the citizens.
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