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We must all fly less – the government must stop pandering to the aviation industry

2021 August 6
by Paul Vallely

THERE was a revealing juxtaposition of news on the radio this week. First, the Government announced that it was scrapping the proposal to create an amber watchlist of countries at risk of requiring hotel quarantine — “a victory for common sense”, a spokesman for the air travel industry declared. Next came an admission from the Government, in the run-up to the COP26 climate conference, that the UK must change its carbon-emission output “right now” if the over-heating of the planet was to be curbed. The cognitive dissonance between these two items went unremarked.

Aviation is responsible for more than eight per cent of Britain’s carbon-dioxide emissions. Add in the nitrogen oxides, and other gases produced by aircraft, and their warming effect on the planet is almost double that. A return flight to San Francisco emits twice as much carbon dioxide as a family car does in a whole year. A flight from London to Manchester produces 12 time more greenhouse gases per passenger than a train journey. Aviation represents just one per cent of the global economy, but uses eight times its share of fossil fuel.

Airline companies and their lobbyists have long had strong links to government, which is perhaps why the industry benefits from significant public support. There is no duty on aircraft fuel. There is no VAT on plane tickets. Air travel is, in effect, subsidised. Moreover, aircraft are not constrained by carbon budgets under the Climate Change Act. That is perhaps why, pre-Covid, airline flights were predicted to double over the next 20 years. Is this the “normal” to which we want to return?

Lobbyists insist that aircraft are today 85 per cent more fuel-efficient than they were in 1960. But the benefits of more efficient planes are far outweighed by the unconstrained growth in passenger numbers: aircraft emissions increased by a third between 2013 and 2018. Industry cheerleaders talk of plans to use biofuels, synthetic alternatives, and grander plans to develop hydrogen engines. But all this is decades away.

In the interim, they talk of carbon offsetting. But that is not a long-term solution. It is a temporary fix that means that wealthier individuals can keep contributing to climate change without altering their behaviour. It is, as one eco-wag put it, like compensating for your own adultery by paying others to be faithful for you. If all sectors and all countries need to reduce their emissions to net zero by 2050, offsetting now only postpones the necessary action.

What the Government should be doing is insisting that aviation is included in carbon budgets under the Climate Change Act. It should add VAT to airline tickets and excise duty to aircraft fuel (which would give the Treasury an extra £8 billion a year to develop new green projects and jobs). It should require businesses to account for their air travel in their annual reports.

It could introduce an Air Miles Levy to ensure that everyone gets one tax-free flight a year, and the 15 per cent of the population who take 70 per cent of all flights pay more, with an added tax on the first- and business-class seats that take up more space and weight on the plane. Most of us should fly a lot less. It is time for aviation to become more civil.

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