Barcelona-El Prat airport is struggling to spread its wings. For years, Aena’s interest in increasing air traffic has run into an airfield that operates oppressed by its location, embedded between a space of natural interest and a stone’s throw from residential neighborhoods. The agreement sealed this week between the Ministry of Transport and the Generalitat to expand the aerodrome allows unlocking a millionaire investment in an infrastructure that wants to be one of the main European bases of operations where companies can link intercontinental flights, which is technically known as a hub international.
The project is ambitious and bombastic. The 1,700 million euros planned represent almost double of all that the State invested in Catalonia throughout 2020, 957 million. The bulk of the expenditure is broken down into the construction of a new satellite terminal (681 million), in a tunnel to connect it with T1 (378 million), and in the lengthening of the runway closest to the sea (262 million). The remodeling is attributed the capacity to generate 45,000 direct jobs and to raise the weight of the airport in Catalan GDP by two points, to 8.9%.
However, the firmness of the figures collides with an opposition front that warns of the environmental damage that carrying it out would entail. The airport is surrounded by the wetlands of the Llobregat delta and the impact they would receive due to the extension of the infrastructure has stirred up the debate on whether to continue betting on a model that promotes larger facilities to accommodate more traffic and a greater volume of operations. , even at the cost of invading a protected natural space.
The mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, and the mayor of El Prat, Lluís Mijoler, have championed this rejection of the Aena plan, supported by neighborhood groups and environmental organizations, which have already announced protests. Colau points out that it is a project based on “a model from the past” and on “the economy of the pitch.” And it finds “evident” its inconsistency with the commitments acquired in relation to climate change. Following Minister Raquel Sánchez’s agreement with the vice president Catalan Jordi Puigneró, Lluís Mijoler criticized the Generalitat for giving in “to blackmail” by Aena and abandoning residents who live near the airport. Under slogans like Less planes, more life or Fighting for the climate, health and life, the Zeroport, Ni un pam de terra and Xarxa per la Justícia Climàtica platforms have galvanized popular discontent.
Fernando Prieto, researcher at the Sustainability Observatory, believes that the project is a “brutal contradiction”: “You cannot be talking about a climatic emergency and rising temperatures and bet on increasing an infrastructure that directly threatens ecology.” This expert cites other examples of infrastructure enlargement in conflict with sustainability, such as the works in the ports of Valencia, Vigo and Tenerife.
At Aena they defend that the project presented is the most sustainable and that, without giving up economic growth, it respects the needs of society and the environment. “Overflights over Castelldefels are avoided and they move away from the Gavá area”, explains its spokesperson. The company also insists that the environmental impact of the expansion will be more than compensated thanks to the replacement of land that will have the protection of the European seal of Natura 2000 Network. and improvement of the affected habitats of community interest, improving the connectivity of the resulting space ”, they conclude in the airport operator. The Generalitat apologizes that it has not yet been defined how the facility has to grow, but Aena maintains that there is no other option than to lengthen the track closest to the sea towards the La Ricarda lagoon.
The proposal ignites criticism from opponents, who advance “irreparable” damage, while the airport management insists that stretching the runway to the wetland is a lesser evil. Any other option entails a direct impact on the neighbors because it would imply varying the role with which the operations are currently carried out.
Carlos Bravo, spokesman in Spain for the organization Transport and Environment, stresses that the delta area also includes the aquifer system on which Barcelona’s water supply depends, which “represents another risk.” In his opinion, both the expansion of El Prat and the remodeling of Barajas are “incompatible” with climate commitments. “Air transport is the one that emits the most greenhouse gas emissions per passenger, and together with maritime transport it is the one that has made the least efforts to reduce them.” He explains that aviation will continue to depend on fossil fuels, as decarbonized alternatives will not be massively ready for 15 to 20 years. And these will not solve the impact on the delta either. “There is no way to reconcile it,” he says.
El Prat has three runways, but takeoffs and landings are basically concentrated on the two parallel runways. One is reserved for landings and the other, shorter and closer to the sea, for take-offs. Using them independently, both valid for any operation, would increase the airport’s capacity to the goal of 90 operations at the time Aena is pursuing. But this would mean that the aircraft would fly over the roofs of nearby residential areas, especially Castelldefels and Gavà, the municipality of which Minister Raquel Sánchez was mayor until last month. At the technical table to reach consensus for the expansion, Aena offered to shield the current role of tracks to win support. The proposal went down well in the Generalitat and in almost all the municipalities near the airport. El Prat continued to show its total rejection of the project, insisting that the biodiversity of the Llobregat delta does not tolerate more cement.
The matter has prompted a statement by the European Commission, whose spokespersons have warned that “there is community environmental legislation that must be respected.” Minister Raquel Sánchez, who during her time as mayor had rejected any change in the airport infrastructure that could affect the quality of life of her municipality, insists that it is not only the EU that asks for consideration, but that the Ministry of Transport itself and the Ecological Transition will be “demanding”.
The Government insists that it maintains the green and sustainable commitment as a core part of its political project, but it must make it compatible with economic development. Although the discussion has not taken place in the Council of Ministers, Vice President Yolanda Díaz has communicated to the Ministers Ribera and Sánchez her concern, reports Anabel Díez.
In Unidos Podemos they do not hide their concern. “The government’s environmental commitment has lost steam,” says deputy Juan López de Uralde, informs Miguel Ángel Medina. Regarding the expansion of the Barcelona airport, and the project that affects Barajas, he points out: “I hope there will be a reflection on this type of project. There must be a correction from the Government ”.
Criticisms of the Executive have also come from environmental organizations. Adrián Fernández, spokesman for Greenpeace, believes that “the government’s discourse remains the same, but the policies do not correspond to the objectives.” Pablo Muñoz, from Ecologistas en Acción, agrees: “The government’s environmental policy is far from being coherent. There are many examples of how climate ambition is diluted in the face of economic interests. This case of El Prat shows it ”.