Cornwall Spaceport Versus Climate Change

Posted on: 19th September 2019

I know that some are concerned about Cornwall Council Cabinet supporting the Spaceport at Newquay and wanted to provide my views and some information from other sources.

Despite this image, this is not a done deal

In short, for many reasons, not least Climate Change and whether this is the best way to spend £12m to urgently protect the planet, I am not behind this bid at this stage. I have made my concerns known to several Cabinet Members and, at the moment they know that I will take some convincing to vote for this, when the matter comes to Full Council to approve the money being allocated.

I’m now going to give you what Edwina Hannaford said in speaking and voting against this at Cabinet. Edwina is a LibDem Cabinet Member I know well and respect and holds the responsibility for Climate Change, since I left the Cabinet in May. At the end, I will provide the official CC press statement so that you feel I am allowing you to have a balanced picture, if you wish to reach your own conclusions.


I voted against for the reasons set out below but the vote was 4 against and 6 for. It will now go to full Council for a final decision as it’s an uplift to the capital programme.

I acknowledge the point of inspiring our young people in space but I also want to inspire people with that same passion for environmental science and climate change.
I have to admit I have been very conflicted by the prospect of this decision as the portfolio holder for climate change.
My nature is to be progressive and I do believe we should look to the future and technology can be a force for good, helping to solve many of the problems we face.
The Climate Change Emergency motion adopted by the Council in January and the action plan approved in July is a game changer.

I have read in detail all the evidence and there is some support for the project siting the use of satellites to understand trends and target efforts to tackle climate change.

Brexit has made all the work that has been undertaken by the ESA and the UKSA uncertain. Although monitoring of climate change has been undertaken Brexit may prevent access to some EU programmes even thought the UK will remain a member of the European Space Agency (ESA) and access to associated opportunities. But which programmes will be available to us? It’s this uncertainty that’s making me less certain about the positive benefits of this proposal.

I can see this argument,  we do need to understand what is happening on a global basis as tackling climate change IS a global challenge.
However I am not assured that the satellites launched from Space port Cornwall will be used for this purpose. There are no guarantees Space Port Cornwall
will be at the vanguard of climate science and not military use for example.

I also see the positives from the upgrades to the airport infrastructure such as flush LED lighting and subsequent reduction in light pollution and electricity usage and therefore carbon. This could be upgraded anyway outside Spaceport.

Where I come unstuck with this proposal and being able to support the proposal in front of me is 2 fold.

Why are Cornwall tax payers, one of the poorest regions of the UK disproportionately funding this? Why aren’t the Government or UK space agency investing the lions share? What guarantees are there post Brexit (if it happens) that we will be part of the ESA work in the field of climate science?

I believe there could be other proposals that could offer the same economic advantages and high value jobs and enhanced GVA in the environmental sector, but without the need for offsetting.
Offsetting while important, does not offer a long term solution to the impacts of climate change. From a carbon reduction hierarchy perspective offsetting is at the bottom of the hierarchy. Avoiding, reducing, replacing are at the top as we move away from a fossil fuel economy and a more regenerative economy.
I don’t want to minimise offsetting however, as The Forest for Cornwall has other important advantages like support natural and human health.

The climate change decision wheel is an excellent tool and I want to ensure that this is used rigorously and consistently used in the Council’s decision making process, but for this particular project I would have liked to see them all green.
I understand there are other grand challenges but this one is symbolic.

Although the Exeter University study has looked at the  C02 emission impacts of higher altitude space flight referred to  as radiative forcing I’m unsure if internationally these impacts are as well understood.

Although I understand first mover advantage, to be true to the carbon neutrality of the emergency motion this investment may be premature. I would rather see the Comprehensive Impact Assessment before the investment decision is made not after. What if the CIA proves the carbon impact is much higher and  are we already committed?

We don’t have an Assessment of Environmental Effect of Launch because the exact methodology of the impact assessments required will not be known until later this year when the draft guidance will be issued by UK Government. Secondary legislation is required and likely to be published in 2020. It’s unclear who will be in government let alone whether this legislation will be forthcoming.

The proposal is also inconsistent with the Climate Vision 10 pledges we are promoting which includes a pledge to reduce air travel by 50%

I have taken soundings from a wide range of stakeholders and some like me are also  uncomfortable with this proposals and its compatibility with the climate emergency declaration.

There is also a perception problem that actively promoting aviation is just not the right course of action when we are in a climate change emergency.

Should this proposal go through I will be holding agencies to account to ensure the integrity of the motion is kept.

I therefore don’t believe this investment is compatible with the climate emergency motion agreed by council and It’s for these reasons I’m unable to support the proposal on balance at this time.

You can read all the papers that went to Cabinet on the Cornwall Council Website, under meetings and then Cabinet. For a few days/ a week or so, you can also view the webcast.
This is Cornwall Council official press release, on the subject:

At their meeting today (18 September 2019), Cabinet members voted by 6 to 4 to recommend to councillors that the Council invests up to £12m in developing the Spaceport Cornwall Programme.

If full Council agrees in November, the bulk of the money will come from capital budgets and will not negatively impact on the delivery of any other service.  It will be used to develop facilities and operational capabilities at Cornwall Airport Newquay that would enable plans by satellite launch company Virgin Orbit to send small satellites into space from Spaceport Cornwall using a modified Boeing 747.

The plane carries a rocket under its wing and drops it at high altitude, over the Atlantic, for onward travel into space, where its satellite payload is deployed into low earth orbit.  The launch vehicle then returns to the Airport and is able to be reused repeatedly.

Subject to the funding being agreed, there is expected to be one launch in 2021, with up to no more than eight a year projected by 2025.

Funding of £7.85m for the project has already been announced for the project from the UK Space Agency.  A contribution of £0.5 million will come from the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership.  US launch operator Virgin Orbit, will be investing an additional £2.5 million.

Members heard that Spaceport Cornwall could create 150 jobs and enable the UK to compete for a share of the global market for launching small satellites worth £3.9 billion to 2030.  

An independent scientific study by a leading energy and environment specialist at the University of Exeter has said that the proposed horizontal launch Spaceport at Cornwall Airport Newquay is not expected to impact significantly on Cornwall’s overall greenhouse gas emissions and efforts in combatting climate change.

Geoff Brown, Cornwall Council cabinet portfolio holder for transport said: “It’s important to emphasise that what is being proposed in Cornwall are horizontal launches of satellites – not vertical launches or space tourism.  Leading the way in satellite based technology can help us worldwide by allowing us to collect data and explore the impacts of climate change from space. This information has global benefits in helping to manage the earth’s resources more wisely.  It will also help existing industries become more efficient as we all work together, as we must, to reduce emissions overall and battle against climate change”

Mark Duddridge, Chair of the Cornwall & Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership said: “This was a bold and important decision by Cornwall Council’s Cabinet and an important step towards creating the conditions for the space sector to flourish in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. The LEP is already investing £8.4m to upgrade Goonhilly Earth Station for deep space communications, which has helped to attract £25m of additional private investment. We expect Spaceport Cornwall to have a similar catalytic effect, creating high quality jobs in a fast-growing sector of the economy.”

The first phase of Spaceport Cornwall is expected to create 150 jobs and generate £200m for the Cornish economy.  The jobs will create local employment with many roles locally sourced including opportunities across operational support and engineering. The project will offer long term opportunities for work for our local communities and we are working with our schools to raise ambitions and inspire children to consider a career in the space industry.  Launch from the UK will be an opportunity to inspire children and young people to take up careers in science, engineering or even as space entrepreneurs. 

The University of Exeter’s study will inform a carbon offset strategy for Spaceport Cornwall which includes £50,000 for planting trees as part of a proposed Forest for Cornwall, which Cornwall Council outlined in its Climate Emergency Action Plan last month.

The aim is to ensure that any carbon emissions from a spaceport are more than offset. In time, satellite launch operators such as Virgin Orbit will be required to meet the carbon costs of operations through their launch fees, in line with the Council’s vision to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030.