The Committee on Climate Change's (CCC) report on aviation, published today, explicitly undermines government plans to allow a tripling of passenger numbers on commercial aircraft by 2050.
While its Chairman Lord Turner has been careful not to totally rule out the possibility of creating extra capacity in the form of new runways, the committee is recommending that "the policy focus for aviation must be on limiting demand for flights and investing in alternatives such as better rail links and video conferencing." In an interview on the BBC's Today programme this morning, Lord Turner confirmed that a 200% growth in consumer demand for air travel by 2050, assumed in the 2003 Aviation White Paper, would make reaching proposed emission reduction targets impossible.
The government is already making a special case out of carbon emissions from aviation. The sector doesn't have to meet the '80% cut from 1990 levels by 2050' test which the economy as a whole has to pass, but instead has a significantly lower bar to clear, namely a '120% increase from 1990 levels by 2050' test. Yet in order to meet that target passenger demand must be constrained to no more than 60% growth on current levels. And even that figure, according to Lord Turner, "assumes significant efficiency improvements in carbon use by aircraft".
"The government's entire aviation policy, the basis for their
controversial Heathrow decision, has now been conclusively rejected by
the government’s own advisers as incompatible with their climate
John Sauven, Director, Greenpeace UK
Even if this aspiration is met, aviation will still account for at least 25% of the UK's proposed 160 million tonne carbon budget in 2050. The fact is that we’ve got a small and rapidly decreasing quantity of carbon we can afford to safely emit – and we need to make the right decisions now to ensure we don’t lock ourselves into a high carbon future. Why are ministers so determined to fritter it away on giving London a seventh runway, when we already fly more than any other nation on Earth? If Gordon Brown continues to bow to the aviation industry’s demands for special treatment, other industries, and ultimately consumers, will have to pay the hefty price of making even deeper cuts than those already planned.
In practice this means that the ambitious plans set out in the 2003 Aviation White Paper, which envisages expansion at up to 28 airports around the country, cannot possibly go ahead. Particularly since the CCC's report explicitly acknowledges that non-C02 gases (such as nitrous oxide and water vapour) have not been fully incorporated into this target but will need to be accounted for in the future. So inevitably the target will need to be tightened. And the report goes on to say that even with a carbon price of £200 per tonne, growth would still be 115% under the Aviation White Paper’s provisions, meaning that "clear additional policies will therefore be required to constrain passenger demand." Of course, the only "additional policies" which can reduce demand by such a high level would be a combination of heavy taxes on passengers and a ban on all regional airport expansion.
So what does all this mean for the future of flying in the UK? Well, as Greenpeace Executive Director John Sauven pointed out this morning after reading the report:
"The government's entire aviation policy, the basis for their controversial Heathrow decision, has now been conclusively rejected by the government’s own advisers as incompatible with their climate targets.
"The Aviation White Paper and the poor decisions it led to must be ripped up in cabinet, or ripped up in court. We urge the former, but are fully prepared to see Heathrow’s third runway in the dock."