The head of Leeds Bradford Airport and a climate change expert have clashed over the future of air travel.

A tense meeting of Leeds City Council’s climate emergency committee heard opposing views on how the future of the airport should look.

LBA chief executive Hywel Rees said the airport, in Yeadon, was a local employer and had the responsibility for the livelihoods of hundreds of local people.

But Jefim Vogel, a PHD researcher at the University of Leeds, told the meeting that civilization was under immediate threat from climate change, and that the numbers of those travelling by plane needed to reduce dramatically.

The meeting, at Leeds Civic Hall, was attended by numerous members of the public, including some from environmental campaign group Extinction Rebellion.

Mr Rees made a presentation in which he said: “I began my career in the steel industry in South Wales, and I know what economic decline does to social cohesion and communities.

“I am not here to win any arguments.

“I am responsible for more than 500 people’s livelihoods and their families.

“Thomas Cook went bust this week suddenly. Many people lost their jobs without compensation or redundancy payments. They went home not knowing how they were going to pay their mortgages and make ends meet.

“We only succeed by working together. In terms of localism, all airports are local businesses. The impact it has on the local community and the impact the community has on it is profound.

“If we have an honest conversation we can be partners in economic and cultural development.”

He went on to discuss technological advances in air travel, adding: “There are six billion people in the world, and we need to find a way of sustaining them without burning carbon. And that’s going to be tough.

“If we want people to buy electric cars, they need to be able to afford electric cars. It involves a technological change more than we have seen since the industrial revolution.”

“Airports have a key role to play in that. The challenge is: how do you fly without burning carbon?

“It is a challenge for everybody, but from an aircraft tech perspective there are one or two things I’d like to put out there. Planes are more fuel efficient than they were in the 1960s.

“The aviation industry knows the heat is on and we will see greater change from them.

“The number of flights from LBA has fallen since 2009 even though passenger numbers have increased.

“It’s a bigger improvement than people may believe.”

In his presentation to the board, Jefim Vogel, a PHD researcher at the University of Leeds, claimed millions, possibly billions, could die or become displaced due to drought, flooding, famine or conflict created by climate change.

He said: “We are currently destroying the basis for human life and civilization.

“On the track we are currently on, the world will be hotter than what humans have ever experienced.

“If we don’t radically and rapidly change course, we are facing heatwaves, floods and droughts, food crises, conflict and millions, if not billions, of climate refugees.

“Many millions, possibly billions, could die.

“What is currently existing cannot be sustained. The stakes are so high that, if we don’t act now, the social response may become uncontrollable.”

He said that more than 70 percent of flights in the UK were taken by just 15 percent of the population, while more than 50 percent of the population doesn’t fly at all.

He added that, in order for Leeds to achieve its 2030 climate targets, The airport would need to see just a quarter of its current passenger levels by 2030.

“Fuel efficiency improvements are very limited and alternatives are not yet ready for development,” he said. 

“The pace of improvements is way too slow, even if passenger numbers don’t increase.

“Technology could help decarbonise flying, but only if passenger numbers were massively reduced.

“We are confronted with an emergency, Leeds City Council is the task force for Leeds. If a building is on fire, do the firefighters say ‘I’ll only start working if that guy starts working’ – will that save a house? Probably not.

“Anyone with any power should do anything they can to kill the flames.”

“If we fail to meet climate targets, we may not be forgiven.”

He went on to recommend that Leeds meet its climate targets and be seen as a “leader and role model” in its response. He added that Leeds City Council should stop endorsing the airport expansion, as well as all measures facilitating the expansion, including building new access roads and railway stations. Mr Vogel added: “Put pressure on the airport company, and the national aviation committee. If we are serious, we need to put pressure onto the next level of governance. “Are we going to be locked into an unsafe future by a piece of paper we signed at some point. That would be a bad tale to tell our children.

“We are talking about sea changes, but that is because this is what it takes to keep us from what is at stake.

“I think it’s legitimate to talk about changing everything when you’re risking everything.”