Leo Barasi: UK Government’s new aviation strategy is a plan for climate chaos

In his new book, The Climate Majority, Leo Barasi looks at the problem the UK has with its carbon targets and its desire to fly more and more. There is no doubt about the fact that to meet its climate targets the UK must restrict flying – but the government is going backwards on this, and the public are becoming less worried about aviation’s environmental cost. A 3rd Heathrow runway, with ever more longer haul flights, might produce around 9 million tonnes of CO2 each year, which is about 8% of all the emissions the UK can release in 2050 if it is to meet the Climate Change Act. The government is well aware of, but trying to ignore and conceal, the fact that the Heathrow runway can only be built and used if aviation growth at other UK airports is restricted – or we fail to meet the UK carbon target. The Airports Commission was well aware of the problem, and suggested the entirely implausible solution would be to hugely raise the cost of flying a few decades ahead, to cut passenger numbers. The current consultation by the DfT is focused almost entirely on planning for huge aviation expansion, prioritising consumers over the climate. Ironically, while an ever larger percentage of the population realises climate change is real, and caused by humanity, fewer are prepared to reduce their own flying at all.  Just 21% say they would be willing to fly less to reduce the impact of climate change.


UK Government’s new aviation strategy is a plan for climate chaos

By LEO BARASI  (Open Democracy UK)

11 October 2017

To meet its climate targets the UK must restrict flying – but the government is going backwards and the public are becoming less worried about aviation’s environmental cost.

Arguments about a new Heathrow runway may have receded to a distant rumble, but it’s an increasingly important question, with the government now planning to drop rules intended to make a new runway compatible with climate limits.

In the effort to limit climate change, a new Heathrow runway is a big deal. It would produce around 9 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, which is about 8% of all the emissions the UK can release in 2050 if it is to meet the Climate Change Act. Even if more efficient planes could cut that slightly, it’s a vast amount for one strip of tarmac.

Even so, debate about the new runway is just part of a bigger argument. It’s nearly inevitable that meeting the UK’s climate targets would only be possible with restrictions on flying, regardless of what happens at Heathrow. But the government has quietly proposed a new aviation strategy that suggests it isn’t prepared to do that.

Suspension of disbelief

It’s mathematically possible for the UK to build a third runway at Heathrow and still meet its emissions target – but you have to suspend your disbelief to imagine it actually happening and the government now appears to have given up on the fantasy.

When the Airports Commission recommended expanding Heathrow, it knew it had to say something about climate change. So it came up with an answer that ticked the climate box, but which was hard to take seriously. Its cunning plan was for Heathrow to expand and then for every other UK airport to be prevented from doing the same. Even that wasn’t enough – to meet its climate limits, the UK would still have to leave some of its airport capacity unused. The Commission’s idea for how to do that was an implausible plan to ramp up ticket prices by eye-watering amounts, with the aim of discouraging poorer people from flying.

These were never realistic suggestions and, in its proposed new strategy, the government has given up the pretence that they would happen. Instead, it has set out a plan where “consumers are the focus of the sector and… their expectations continue to be met”. Since the government expects demand “to increase significantly between now and 2050”, its prioritisation of consumers over the climate means it is planning for more airport capacity “beyond the additional runway” – whipping away the justification of Heathrow expansion before the bulldozers are even warmed up.

This is a plan for the UK to miss its climate targets. It would mean aviation expanding well beyond what the government’s climate advisors say is possible within emissions limits. The result would be other sectors having to cut their emissions more than they are already due to, something the advisors say may not be possible. The only hope may be electric planes, but these still seem far off – if they are possible at all – for anything other than the smallest of aircraft.

Public support

Alarmingly, the government might well get away with this inconsistency – because its position is what most people want. A new survey has shown there is little public appetite for restrictions on flying for the sake of the climate.

The poll, part of the respected British Social Attitudes survey, found the UK public are intensely relaxed about the climate costs of flying. Only 35% disagree that people should be allowed to travel by plane as much as they like, even if it harms the environment. That’s a fall from a peak of 49% saying the same in 2008. And, when it comes to their own travel, just 21% say they would be willing to fly less to reduce the impact of climate change.

It’s striking that the survey also found that the highest-ever proportion now understand climate change is real and caused by human activities. So the lack of worries about the impact of flying don’t seem to be a result of doubts about the reality of the problem.

Instead, the survey reflects the fact that most people realise climate change is a threat, but haven’t had to confront what it will take to deal with the problem. This isn’t a surprise when many climate campaigners have focused on the easy and uplifting emission-cutting changes, like the switch to renewable power and efficient appliances, that make our air cleaner or reduce household bills.

Confronting the problem

Those uplifting changes are still necessary and it’s right to inspire people with evidence of how cutting emissions can make their lives better, but we can’t keep putting off the unwelcome conversations. The longer we do so, the harder it will be to win support for the difficult measures that will be needed.

As I argue in my book, The Climate Majority, flying isn’t the only one of these unwelcome issues, but it may be the first that countries like the UK will have to confront. Decisions that the government makes in the next few years could leave the UK with expensive infrastructure that could put the climate target out of reach.

The new aviation strategy reflects the obvious – but previously denied – fact that a new Heathrow runway would make it much harder to limit emissions. Yet public opinion is moving away from being willing to deal with the problem, just when wide support is most needed.

It’s possible that a new runway at Heathrow will be stopped by local protests that have little to do with climate change. But, whatever happens with that strip of tarmac, the UK’s climate target will be in trouble unless more people realise their desire to stop global warming is in conflict with the government’s plans – and the popular wish – for ever more flights.

The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism (New Internationalist) is now available.




See also

Climate change: Ministers should be ‘sued’ by “Plan B” over insufficient 2050 CO2 targets

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Offsets can play limited role in reducing aviation CO2 – but there’s poor understanding of their limitations

With the growth in air travel demand forecast to outstrip fuel efficiency improvements, the only hope for the aviation industry’s CO2 emissions goals is if they could be achieved through the purchase of carbon offsets. However, says a new study, there is considerable misunderstanding about offsetting and the difference between scientific and policy perspectives. Offsets are merely a way to cancel out aviation carbon, by nominally assisting other sectors to make actual reductions in carbon emissions. Offsets are just a way of concealing the problem, and giving the impression that aviation is not just adding to global carbon emissions.  The study says offsets do not “make emissions ‘go away’ in some miraculous manner” and there is a low level of understanding about the limitations of offsets in reducing global CO2. For example, the influence on the global climate system of additional atmospheric CO2 from the combustion of fossil fuels is not neutralised by offsets in the land sector.  As it does not reduce atmospheric concentrations of CO2, carbon offsetting should be seen as a second or even third best option behind technological advances or demand reduction efforts to make the necessary deep cuts in aviation emissions over the long term.

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Blog by Cait Hewitt (AEF): Is global aviation climate policy heading in the right direction?

Cait Hewitt, Deputy Director of the Aviation Environment Federation looks at aviation emissions and whether we’re on course to tackle them.  Nobody knows yet whether the ICAO agreement to implement a Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) beginning in 2020 will be at all effective in limiting aviation CO2 emissions. It depends on the unsatisfactory process of “offsetting” emissions from planes, using real CO2 cuts made by other sectors. At present, CORSIA is far less ambitious than the 2015 Paris Agreement. Cait asks:  “…does carbon offsetting offer an effective response to the global climate challenge, as its advocates argue, or is it merely a way of putting off difficult decisions?”  The UK’s statutory advisory body, the Committee on Climate Change, has advised that market based measures should be seen as only a short to medium term solution for tackling aviation emissions, arguing that the sector should be preparing for deep cuts in its own emissions.  Analysis suggests that achieving the Paris Agreement will require our economies to be zero emissions by 2070. However the UK government plans a huge expansion of the aviation sector, with Heathrow’s claimed economic benefits calculated over 60 years. The does not seem compatible with zero carbon by 2070. Cait: “We have yet to have a public or political conversation about what that could mean for the role of flying in our economies and our lives.”

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EU study shows most carbon offsets do not work – aviation sector plans depend on them

Carbon offsets are not working, according to a study by the European Commission. The concept of carbon offsets is to allow polluters to pay others to reduce their CO2 emissions, so they can continue to pollute. This is usually considered the cheapest (“most cost effective”) way to make token gesture carbon cuts. The EC research found that 85% of the offset projects used by the EU under the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) failed to reduce CO2 emissions.  EU member states decided not to allow the use of offsets to meet European climate goals after 2021. The global market-based measure adopted last October by ICAO relies exclusively on offsetting in its attempt at “carbon neutral growth” for aviation from 2020. Yet Europe is now endorsing the approach at ICAO to address international aviation emissions using the same approach that this report so thoroughly discredits. The problem with offsets is that they are often not making the CO2 cuts suggested, or that the cuts would have happened anyway.  To make matters worse, the ICAO agreement so far fails to include important safeguards which would exclude the worst types of offsets eg. forestry credits, or ensuring adequate transparency about the offsets used. With CDM offsets trading for as little as €0.50 a tonne, offsetting will not cut CO2 – nor will it incentivise greater aircraft efficiency.

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UK government must not use international climate deal as a “smokescreen” with which to force through Heathrow runway

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