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Bridget Fox's picture
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Cutting carbon from air travel cannot simply be sidelined to clear the way for airport expansion.

The Government’s priorities need to change if we are to have an aviation strategy fit for purpose.

Along with campaign groups ranging from the Aviation Environment Federation to the RSPB, we recently responded to 'Beyond the Horizon', the Government's call for evidence on its aviation strategy.

The Government's paper is not a neutral call for evidence: it sets out priorities for the strategy, which follow an alarming trend set by the Draft Airports National Policy Statement (NPS) back in May this year.

Carbon emissions from transport are rising, and the UK's carbon budget is already off track. Aviation already accounts for 8 per cent of total UK emissions, and as other sectors decarbonise, it will become more significant still.

Yet at present neither the NPS nor the aviation strategy sets any upper limits for CO2 emissions. Instead, the paper says “On climate change, which is a global rather than a local environmental issue, the government's position is that action to address these emissions is best taken at the international level.” 

This is a dangerously complacent position: action is needed at every level, from local to global. An aviation strategy that does not focus on delivering a low carbon future is not fit for purpose. And that means cutting not growing the number of air miles. 

Research from Transport & Environment among others demonstrates that attempting to offset aviation's carbon emissions is a failed approach: it does not directly address the impacts of fuel burn, does not constrain growth and does not meet our obligations under the Paris agreement. 

Attempts to fix the problem by converting to biofuels are also doomed to fail. Without a reliable high volume of recycled biofuels, the industry will rely on growing biofuels to order. Deforestation to grow cheap biofuels such as palm oil, and the fuel miles needed to get them to market, would result in an increase, not a reduction, in greenhouse gas emissions.

International action is necessary but not sufficient. There are measures that can and must be taken at UK level to help bring carbon budgets back on track.

Instead of pursuing unsustainable increases in capacity, the aviation strategy should focus on managing down demand as part of an integrated plan for sustainable development and clean growth.

Reducing the overall number of flights is the best and most effective way to address noise while also tackling CO2 emissions and air pollution.

And we've identified some reforms to the tax system that could help, such as reforming Air Passenger Duty and in the longer term replacing it with a Frequent Flyer Levy

Airports' environmental impact is felt at ground level too, with noise and pollution from road traffic a major headache even without any future expansion.

Public transport rates to major airports are woefully low, even where a railway station is integrated into the airport. As last year's House of Commons inquiry reported, no airport has more than 50 per cent of passengers arriving by public transport, and outside the London airports the figures are shockingly low. 

The UK Committee on Climate Change has made a 5% reduction in vehicle-km a priority for getting our carbon budget back on track.  To help achieve that, we need more and better rail or light rail links to airports, for freight and workers as well as passengers, and more responsibility on airport operators to encourage their use: fewer carparks, introducing airport congestion zones and more combined rail/air tickets might help. So could prioritising new stations to serve those airports that are tantalisingly close to railway lines yet have no rail link, such as Leeds/Bradford and East Midlands.

The Government's Clean Growth strategy talks about leading the way to a low carbon future, and praises moving away from environmentally damaging activity towards capturing the economic benefits of low carbon technology and expertise. As the Prime Minister writes in the foreword, 

"Clean growth is not an option, but a duty we owe to the next generation"

That's the approach we need for aviation too.