Scientists appalled at government’s support for high-carbon airline industry, and Matt Hancock ill-informed comments
A letter from a group of leading scientists, in the Independent, criticises the support of this government for the high-carbon emissions airline industry, and the grossly misleading statements made by Matt Hancock (Sec of State for Health) to justify this bailout. On 15 January, he gave his unqualified support for the airline industry on BBC Radio 5 live. He claimed that dealing with the climate emergency does not require any change in our demand for flying, and (mistakenly) thinks electric planes will be a future solution. He said aviation has been decarbonised, which is categorically wrong. Small improvements in aircraft fuel efficiency are far outstripped by the industry’s rate of growth. These positions are at odds with the scientific evidence and the need for deep and immediate reductions in the UK’s emissions. Matt Hancock clearly has no grasp of the huge technical challenges in decarbonising aviation. It is of concern that a Secretary of State can be so misinformed. Flying already constitutes 10% of the UK’s carbon emissions and is predicted to rise .
As scientists, we are appalled at the government’s support for the polluting airline industry
Letter from a group of leading scientists, in the Independent
We write as scientists who are appalled at the support of this government for the high-carbon emissions airline industry, and the grossly misleading statements made by Matt Hancock to justify this bailout.
On 15 January, the health minister communicated his unqualified support for the airline industry on BBC Radio 5 live, and claimed that dealing with the climate emergency does not require any change in our demand for flying. These positions are at odds with the scientific evidence and the need for deep and immediate reductions in the UK’s emissions. Moreover, the minister’s claim that “flying has already decarbonised” is categorically wrong.
While aircraft efficiency is slowly improving, any benefits are being outstripped by ongoing growth in the sector and hence the emissions continue to rise both absolutely and relative to other sectors.
Flying already constitutes 10% of the UK’s carbon emissions and is predicted to rise by 300% by 2050 unless urgent action is taken. The government’s own Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has stated that “[t]here are currently no commercially available zero-carbon planes. This is likely to continue to be the case out to 2050, particularly for long-haul flights, which are responsible for the majority of aviation emissions.”
Matt Hancock clearly has no grasp of the huge technical challenges in decarbonising aviation or, following his comments on “electric planes”, any sense of the timeframe of responding to our commitments under the Paris Agreement. Not only is the prospect of electric planes dominating the long-haul market decades away, but they would require vast amounts of renewable electricity to support current and rising volumes of air travel – renewable electricity, which is urgently required to decarbonise other industrial sectors, such as road transport.
Pointing to a future speculative techno-fix is unfounded and irresponsible, because the science is extremely clear. Globally we must halve our emissions by 2030 to stay within 1.5 degrees of warming, and bring them to zero thereafter. However, the Paris Agreement obligates wealthier nations, such as the UK, to lead on this, requiring reductions in emissions at rates simply incompatible with flying-as-usual, let alone planned airport expansion.
The climate crisis is one of the largest ever threats to humanity. David Attenborough, among others, has warned that the UK must take radical action to meet its climate change targets. In order to do this, we will need to transform our economies completely, away from fossil-fuel energy and land-intensive products, towards low-carbon and efficient ones.
Any government statement that such a transformation can be done without affecting our consumption is without a basis in reality. More and more research demonstrates that reducing energy demand holds the key to rapid emissions reductions. These scenarios do not rely, as do many others (including the CCC’s Net Zero report), on large quantities of carbon removal from the atmosphere after it has been emitted (another speculative, costly and risky techno-fix). Even the CCC’s Net Zero report calls for reductions in transport energy as well as in meat consumption.
Instead of bailing out aviation, the most carbon-intensive form of transport, which is disproportionately used by the wealthiest sections of the population, the UK government should be investing heavily in low-carbon public transit for use by all of its citizens.
Subsidising short-haul flights (as the government has just done to the tune of £106m for the benefit of Flybe) and misleading the public on the necessary scale of action exacerbates the climate emergency rather than acting on it, and demonstrates a tragic failure of leadership – especially since the UK is hosting the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow later this year.
Professor Julia Steinberger, University of Leeds
Dr Stuart Capstick, Cardiff University
Dr Milena Buchs, University of Leeds
Professor Kevin Anderson, University of Manchester
Professor Tim Jackson, University of Surrey
Dr James Dyke, University of Exeter
Government considering UK APD cut to save loss-making airline Flybe – to boost profitability of domestic flights
Flybe is one of the main airlines that fly domestic routes in the UK – 38% of them. Currently air passengers pay £26 APD on a return domestic flight (and £13 on a return flight to a European airport). Flybe has been struggling for years, as many of its routes are not profitable. It said in October that it recognised, with growing awareness of the higher CO2 emissions from a flight that using the train or coach, (and “flight shame”) that some of the domestic routes should be scrapped. Now Flybe cannot pay its APD bill to the government – about £100 million over three years. So the government, which talked up the importance of regional connectivity before the election, is considering removing APD from all domestic flights. That would be entirely the opposite of what is needed, to tackle UK carbon emissions, and those from UK aviation in particular. Aviation is already subsidised by not paying VAT. The loss to the Treasury from cutting domestic APD would have to be made up by taxation from other sources. It is not as if all domestic flights are vital to the economy. Most are leisure passengers, making trips to visit places or people, friends or family.
Why the government’s plan to use public money to bail out Flybe is wrong, and the airline is doomed to fail
There are many reasons (ignoring CO2) why spending public money to bail out Flybe is wrong. In the Times, Alistair Osborne criticises the plan to effectively pay Virgin Atlantic and Delta, that now own Flybe. They are rich companies, well able to fund Flybe, which they only bought a year ago. It is a blatant misuse of taxpayer money to pay companies like Virgin, and billionaire Branson. Flybe has a lot of its own problems, which is why it is in debt and cannot make money. These include that Flybe has too many planes, 68 aircraft still flying. An airline analyst said Flybe struggles to compete with low fare carriers, like Ryanair and EasyJet, as their cost per seat is higher. They have been a victim of circumstance: rising fuel prices, an economic slowdown brought on by Brexit and a depreciation of the pound against the dollar. Maybe also the increase in “flight shame” and more carbon awareness. Flybe does not have a hub airport base, which increases costs, and its network is fragmented low frequency routes. The focus on APD is misleading as the reason for its decline.
Flybe saved after ministers agree a government loan + deferral of APD, and review of APD on domestic flights
The immediate future of Flybe was secured on 14th January evening, after ministers agreed a rescue deal with shareholders to keep the loss making regional airline flying. The package of measures includes a potential loan in the region of £100m and/or a possible short-term deferral of a £106m air passenger duty (APD) bill to the Treasury, to help it sort out its debts. Also a pledge to review APD on domestic flights before the March budget. Flybe’s owners Connect Airways – a consortium led by Virgin Atlantic – were persuaded to commit millions more to cover ongoing losses. The government is still in negotiations to finalise any loan to Flybe. The deal was condemned by IAG as “a blatant misuse of public funds” and Virgin “wanting the taxpayer to pick up the tab for their mismanagement of the airline”. Moves to cut APD on domestic flights are totally at odds with any serious attempt to cut CO2 emissions from aviation, as most UK domestic trips can be made on (lower CO2) rail routes. Air travel is already subsidised, by paying no VAT or fuel duty. Some routes deemed socially necessary could be subsidised under EU rules – Flybe’s Newquay to London route is already funded from taxpayers.
Any plans by UK government to remove APD on domestic flights would be unhelpful on CO2 emissions
Responding to the news that Boris Johnson’s Tory government is considering dropping all APD on domestic flights (just cutting it for Flybe would not be legal, for competition reasons) groups that understand about the need for cuts in carbon emissions reacted with dismay (to put it politely). Doug Parr, chief scientist at Greenpeace, commented: “This is a poorly thought out policy that should be immediately grounded. The Government cannot claim to be a global leader on tackling the climate emergency one day, then making the most carbon-intensive kind of travel – flying – cheaper the next. Cutting the cost of domestic flights while allowing train fares to rise is the exact opposite of what we need if we’re to cut climate-wrecking emissions from transport. The aviation sector has got away for years with increasing its carbon footprint. The last thing we need is another incentive for them to pollute more.” Caroline Lucas commented on Twitter: “Addressing #Flybe problems by reducing #APD on all domestic flights is utterly inconsistent with any serious commitment to tackle #ClimateCrisis. Aviation already subsidised – no tax on fuel. Domestic flights need to be reduced, not made cheaper.” Jenny Bates at Friends of the Earth said on Twitter: “APD cut on domestic flights would be “unacceptable & reckless” we at @friends_earth say-we must cut aviation emissions not encourage them.”