Aviation is becoming a real climate change problem but the government clings to the ‘jet zero’ fantasy. We need fewer flights
A forest fire in Rhodes. Scientists predict that if the world heats by 2C, these brutal heatwaves and wildfires will happen every two to five years
Many roams lead to Rhodes, and nobody is happier to facilitate these than the aviation industry. As Rhodes and much of the rest of Greece burns, holidaymakers were still blithely being jetted in to the furnace as late as this week.
I checked the British Airways website this morning, and it is very much business as usual where in Rhodes, you are tempted to “discover a Greek paradise”.
This paradise is currently suffering the worst wildfires the country has ever since, in 82 separate locations. Meanwhile the mercury in the thermometer hit 45C or 113F in old money. Thick plumes of smoke and orange skies blanket the island.
There is no doubt that man-made climate change is pouring petrol on the flames. Or is it kerosene? For there is also no doubt that emissions from aviation are a significant factor and increasing rapidly. Scientists predict that if the world heats by 2C, these brutal heatwaves and wildfires will happen every two to five years.
You might think, as the aviation industry blithely flies tourists into this vicious consequence of climate change, that they might show some self-awareness of their own contribution to the problem, but no.
They will concede, if pushed, that climate change is a reality and is linked to carbon emissions, but staunchly argue that nothing must get in the way of their business model. Yes, emissions will increase, but some other unspecified sector can cut its emissions even more to enable net zero to be hit while aviation emissions grow.
Wasteful, carbon-busting practices abound. One is the notorious habit of flying empty vast distances simply in order not to lose a slot at an airport. Another, revealed this week, is the request by Heathrow that planes flying into the airport should carry as much fuel as possible so as to reduce demand on supplies on the ground. This significantly increases the weight of the plane and so its carbon footprint.
Overall the attitude of the aviation industry is one of selfish, irresponsible arrogance. But then for decades it has felt it can bend the UK government to its will, so has no real need to change behaviour
Overall the attitude of the aviation industry is one of selfish, irresponsible arrogance. But then for decades it has felt it can bend the UK government to its will, so has no real need to change behaviour.
In the middle of last year’s sweltering summer, the present government quietly issued its new aviation plan. This will allow the number of flights to soar by 70% between 2021 and 2050, representing an additional 200 million passengers. In true Orwellian fashion, this forms part of a “jet zero” strategy.
Nothing must get in the way of unrestricted growth in flights, but worry not because a magic wand will be waved and we will have zero-emission flights in the future. The fact that no such technology yet exists is glossed over. When pressed, the industry talks about so-called sustainable aviation fuels. The government is mandating that a minimum of 10% of jet fuel will have to be such by 2030.
They also aim for all domestic flights to achieve net zero by 2040 and for all airport operations in England to be zero-emission by the same year. Yet even under the wildly optimistic scenarios painted in the paper, the UK aviation sector will not reach net zero by 2050 but will still be emitting 19 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent at that point. Even the high-level ambition in the jet zero strategy has 2050 emissions higher than they were in 1990.
In 2020 international aviation made up 12% of the UK’s emissions from transport, a percentage that is likely to increase substantially in the future both due to greater passenger numbers and carbon reductions elsewhere.
Aviation is becoming a real climate change problem. It is not surprising that the Climate Change Committee has repeatedly highlighted the carbon threat from aviation and concluded that we need fewer flights, but that has fallen on deaf ears
Aviation is becoming a real climate change problem. It is not surprising that the Climate Change Committee has repeatedly highlighted the carbon threat from aviation and concluded that we need fewer flights, but that has fallen on deaf ears in government. Instead, they say that airline passengers should travel as they want and feel “guilt-free”. Indeed, the government says it “will continue to support sustainable airport growth”. Just what is sustainable about such growth, you might ask.
So it is therefore no surprise to learn of Gatwick Airport seeking to bring into regular use its second emergency runway. Its website calls this plan “a brighter future for everyone” and excitedly enthuses that “we could serve 75 million passengers a year by 2038 … Let’s take off together.” Forgive me if I don’t get the champagne out.
Development is on the cards at London City, Manchester, and other airports around the country. Climate crisis? What crisis?
The Climate Change Committee is right. We need to fly less. Domestically, we should be switching passengers from air to rail, as is now happening in other European countries. Yet here, the Treasury has actually cut Air Passenger Duty for domestic flights, the only aviation tax there is, while seeing rail fares increase, up 5.9% last year, and inexplicably failing to bring in the Passenger Service Contracts promised in the Williams paper (Shapps has been quietly deleted). These would give the private operators an incentive to grow business and so grow the farebox, which is a much better way of reducing the cost of the railway than stupid ideas like cutting off the wi-fi on trains which would in any case save the square root of nothing.
The DfT’s impressive team of Mark Harper and Huw Merriman understand this and want to make progress, so you have to wonder why it is not happening. Step forward Rishi Sunak whose only interest in transport appears to centre round helicopters and private jets. Indeed, yet again this week, he was getting his chopper out for a trip from London to the West Midlands, a journey of about 90 minutes by train.
Nor does the rail industry always help itself. We learnt this week in the papers that Network Rail bosses spent £10,000 a week last year on flights because it allegedly worked out cheaper than taking the train.
72 of the flights were between Birmingham and Glasgow, which has a perfectly good direct rail connection. If the people who run the railway won’t take the train, why should anyone else? Not-work Rail.
And are the flights actually cheaper or quicker? In a very detailed analysis issued last week by Campaign for Better Transport, the charity proved that on 60% of domestic routes, travelling by train was cheaper or the same as flying, and taking into account airport processing time, 70% of journeys were quicker by rail.
It might be added that you can of course work on the train. Try doing that in a security queue at an airport or squashed between two other people in a barely adequate plane seat.
The government, if it is serious about tackling climate change, should introduce a domestic flight reduction target, reverse the cut in APD, and indeed introduce a tax on fuel used on domestic non-lifeline journeys
The government, if it is serious about tackling climate change, should introduce a domestic flight reduction target, reverse the cut in APD, and indeed introduce a tax on fuel used on domestic non-lifeline journeys.
It should also introduce a new swingeing rate of APD, and introduce VAT on journeys made in private jets. It also needs to start penalising airlines who fly empty to protect slots.
The Civil Aviation Authority, which is actually reasonably progressive, should require airlines to state realistic journey times that take account of airport processing, and to give passengers a clear comparison of carbon emitted by air and the equivalent journey by rail where this exists.
International flights are of course not often substitutable by rail, but airlines can at least help reduce the overall carbon footprint by providing free rail tickets to encourage passengers to use the train to get to the airport. Virtually all airports have pretty good rail connections.
Given that Network Rail chalked up 1,622 international flights last year, it might even get them on the train.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Norman Baker served as transport minister from May 2010 until October 2013. He was Lib Dem MP for Lewes between 1997 and 2015.
This story appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.
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