Darren Johnson asks: Why spend billions on a new runway and then tax us to keep demand for flights down?

Darren Johnson, writing in Best Foot Forward, says there is a huge hidden assumption, in the small print of the Airports Commission. It is that in order for Heathrow or Gatwick to expand, air fares will have to rise across the UK to the point where potential customers abandon the northern and regional airports in favour of their more efficient rivals in the south east. Without more runways in the south east, the regional airports will see a small expansion in flights, but the UK may well be able remain below our CO2 limit for aviation in 2050 (37.5 MtCO2 per year). With another SE runway, the only way to stop it filling up and being intensively used, is to raise fares – a lot – to deter demand, so aviation CO2 emissions remain under the cap. Otherwise the CO2 will just be too high. All this is tucked away in the small print of various appendices. Darren has written to the Commission about this, and responses show they (and the DfT) are aware that a high carbon price would be needed. Estimates vary, but this could add £100 to £150 to a return flight to Ibiza by 2050. Are we just leaving our children to sort out the mess in future? Rather than building a runway, and then having to cut demand (London and the regions) by high taxes, surely it makes more sense not to build the runway in the first place?


Why spend billions on a new runway and then tax us for using it?

By Darren Johnson  (Green Party Member of the London Assembly)

22.6.2015 (Left Foot Forward)

Working my way through all the detailed research that the Davies Commission has produced on Climate Change, I suddenly realised how much was buried in the small print.

The biggest hidden assumption appears to be that in order for Heathrow or Gatwick to expand, fares will have to rise across the UK to the point where potential customers abandon the northern and regional airports in favour of their more efficient rivals in the south east.

The logic of the Davies Commission is simple. Aviation will soak up nearly all the UK allowance of climate change emissions by 2050 as transport and energy become carbon free (an optimistic view).

Without more runways in the south east, the regional airports will see a small expansion in flights, but we will be below our CO2 limit in 2050. If the go ahead is given to more runways around London then the only way to stop these airports filling up and exceeding our emissions cap will be to raise fares – a lot.

All this is tucked away in the small print of various appendices, and it bothered me so much that I wrote to the Davies Commission outlining a set of questions about the small print.

I’m told that it bothered Davies too and he has rewritten the climate change section to make it more convincing and to address the negative consequences for Scottish, Welsh and regional English airports.

An initial report by the Davies Commission contained a graph on the price of carbon needed to meet the emissions cap under different scenarios. This indicated that Carbon Trading would add over £360 on a tonne of Carbon (in 2008 prices). This adds around £150 to the cost of a return flight to Ibiza in southern Spain by 2050.

This is not as unlikely as it sounds. The latest government (Department for Transport, 2014) assumption is that the that the Real Traded Carbon Price for 2050 (if no new runways are built) ranges from £99 per tonne of CO2e to £297 per tonne.

So the government is predicting that the Ibiza return flight will go up by only around £100. Their current modelling for 2050 shows that the price will need to be at the high end in order to reduce emissions to within the carbon cap, even without expansion.

Obviously, with an expansion of capacity, there will be a need to introduce a much higher price. I have asked Davies whether his final report will have a calculation of how much prices will need to increase.

Of course, Davies may argue that his brief extends to 2030 when the new runways are built and that any necessary reduction in flights after that to meet our 2050 climate change targets is for a future generation of politicians to sort out.

This all raises two important question for the Davies Commission. First, why lay all that expensive tarmac, if your intention is to tax people in order to stop them using it?

Second, will future governments have the political will to levy these hefty taxes on flights, and be seen to punish the rest of the UK for the benefit of London and the South East?

Should expansion go ahead I would support taxing flights to stop global warming, because the future stability and prosperity of our planet has to come first.

But it makes far more sense to scrap expansion plans and to avoid some of those extra costs.

With the final report from the Davies Commission due in the next couple of weeks, I hope that the huge flaws in the logic of aviation expansion will be exposed.

It makes no sense for the planet, or for Londoners living with the more immediate consequences of noise and air pollution.

Darren Johnson is a Green Party member of the London Assembly. Follow him on Twitter 


See also

The UK’s richest households receive double the transport subsidy of the poorest

Lucy Shaddock
Inequality is entrenched even in the way we travel

The Budget next month should end speculation about where government spending will be directed and where any cuts will fall.

For some policy areas like welfare, it’s not difficult to see how proposed changes could increase inequality, but there are other unexplored areas where existing spending is already entrenching inequality.

Take transport for example, an unglamorous policy area which is continually overlooked. There is an annual £5.4bn spend on transport subsidies – more than double the amount we spend on NHS A&E services across the country.

For those of us regularly stranded by ‘leaves on the track’, it’s understandable that transport headlines focus on price hikes, poor services and frustrated commuters.

But our new report Taken for a Ride reveals a more fundamental and troubling problem with our system of public transport funding: it actually perpetuates inequality, and has been doing so for decades.

When looking at transport subsidies we found that, in total, the richest ten per cent of households benefit from £978 million in transport subsidy – over three times more than the £297 million received by the poorest ten per cent.

This inequality persists even when you look at household level and adjust for their different sizes, with the richest ten per cent still gaining £294 per year per household compared to the poorest households’ £162.

Perhaps more worrying is just how long this inequality has been going on. For most of the last 20 years, the richest ten per cent has received over four times the level of subsidy of the poorest ten per cent.

This matters because it means we’re doing a fine job spending huge amounts of money ferrying the relatively well-off into decent paying jobs. But we’re doing far less to provide those on low incomes with similar prospects.

The result is not only that the poorest are effectively locked out of decent jobs; they’re also prevented from accessing good health and education services and even cultural activities.

The problem isn’t just one of rich and poor either. The development of a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ will be a major project this parliament, and the economic benefits of the greater connectivity that comes from infrastructure investment should be celebrated.

But investing in transport links alone is a job half done and an opportunity wasted if the poorest can’t afford to benefit, and if some regions are receiving far less support than others.

A household in the north east or north west receives about half the rail subsidy received by a household in London. It’s even worse in Wales, where a household receives almost four times less rail subsidy than one in London.

If we can’t fix this, we’re in danger of creating growth that benefits some but leaves many others behind.

It’s not easy to turn around such institutionalised inequality, but it is possible. Our report recommends that all government departments’ cost-benefit evaluations should consider whether new proposals increase inequality, and that the net effect of their policies as a whole should also be measured against this.

Inequality permeates every area of life in the UK, even the way we travel. Addressing it should be a government priority.


The report “Taken For A Ride – How UK public transport subsidies entrench inequality”

is at

Section on Air Travel on Page 7

“Plane usage

“Air travel is technically considered a form of public transport but is not considered
in our analysis because there is insufficient data on government transport
subsidies. However, there is some evidence it too shows signs of widening
inequality within transport usage.

“Air travel is clearly no longer the preserve of the rich and famous. But despite the
boom in budget airlines over recent years, government surveys on air travel indicate
that, like other areas of transport, how rich you are determines how often you fly22.
While two thirds of those earning over £26,000 (just under the national average for
full time workers) had flown at least once in the 12 months up to March 2014, more
than 70 per cent of those with a gross income under £8,319 did not fly at all in
that time.

“The data here is limited in that it focuses on the lowest half of the income scale
and does not further categorise people with an annual gross income of £26,000 or
more, but it helps to illustrate an economic disparity in another important area of
public transport.”