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Trains not planes: an open letter to the Minister for Future Transport

Recent claims by the Government that we need to keep flying in order to reduce emissions are misleading and dangerous

FlightFree UK
22 Sep 2021 5 min read

This letter is in response to a speech given by Rachel Maclean, the minister responsible for future of transport and environment (including transport decarbonisation), reported in this article by The Independent.

Dear Rachel Maclean,

We at Flight Free UK are deeply concerned about your claims that people need to keep flying in order to help cut carbon emissions.

With the UN climate conference COP 26 on the horizon, it is more important than ever to be accurate in messaging about how we will reach our climate targets.

The claim that “we need the aviation sector to be successful, so that it can invest in those technologies that we know will drive towards technological solutions,” paints a false picture.

The reality of a consumer-led market is that, if people continue to demand fossil-fuelled flights, that’s what we’ll get. It is very difficult to convince shareholders that money should be invested in highly expensive, untested technology when consumer behaviour suggests that we are happy with the status quo. There is currently very little financial incentive for airlines to invest in green technology when kerosene remains untaxed. SAF development, by comparison, is highly expensive

"With COP 26 on the horizon, it is important to be accurate about how we will reach our climate targets."

On the contrary, if consumers chose to fly less or not at all because of climate concerns, airlines will be more highly motivated to speed up the greening process in response. Consumer behaviour and trends are a key factor in leading product development. We have already seen this in countries such as Sweden, where air traffic fell by 9% in 2019 because of environmental concerns, and where airlines are leading the way with eco-conscious policies and technology development.

It is bitterly disappointing that after repeated warnings and advice from the IPCC and the Committee on Climate Change, no attempt is being made to reduce demand for flights. Instead, decarbonisation will have to happen across other sectors, and emissions will be dealt with using future technology and offsets.

"It is bitterly disappointing that no attempt is being made to reduce demand for flights."

Industry giants admit that while technological solutions are in progress, they won't be in commercial use until 2050. Encouraging people to fly more in the meantime is gambling with our chances of reaching net zero. 

The claim that it is "important for people to be able to continue to fly for business reasons,” demonstrates a lack of understanding about the business aviation market. Business flights make up just 10% of flights from the UK, a number which has been stable for many years, and indeed plummeted during Covid when many businesses successfully moved online. With online interactions set to replace around half of all business trips even after Covid, the business case for continuing to fly falls apart.

"Business flights make up just 10% of flights, and plummeted during Covid."

It’s a noble claim that flying is one of the things that "make life worth living.” For the working class family who cannot afford a holiday, what makes life worth living is putting food on the table.

Only around 50% of the UK population flies in any given year – in other countries it’s lower, including in Denmark which is regularly ranked one of the happiest places to live in the world. Globally, only around 10% of the population flies. It is an injustice to suggest to the very people who are being displaced from their homes and seeing their children starve because of the climate crisis, that it’s flights that make life worth living. 

"It is an injustice to suggest that it’s flights that make life worth living."

We have deep privilege here in the UK. The freedom to travel is not afforded to everyone. Of course, travel is a wonderful gift: for those of us lucky enough to access it, travel can increase our understanding of the world, and can open our eyes to new cultures. It is something to look forward to, and can improve our mental health.

But not flying doesn’t mean not travelling. For a minister concerned with decarbonisation, the conversation should be focussed on low-carbon transport such as rail and coach travel within the UK and Europe. In Germany, the Green Party is proposing the opening up of night train routes across Europe. In France, the government is removing domestic flight routes that can be made in under 2.5 hours by train. By contrast, in the UK, government ministers are encouraging more people to fly.

"The conversation should be focussed on low-carbon transport."

It is naive to claim that the UK can reach zero in aviation without having a demand management policy, and goes against the advice of experts and campaigners. It is also contrary to public opinion: in 2019, a poll showed that two thirds of people in the UK support restrictions on the number of flights people can take. In 2020, 30% of people said they would fly less after Covid, with only 15% saying they would fly more.

One promising policy is to provide information about what is a more sustainable choice for consumers. We already label our food products with guidance on the most healthy choice; carbon labelling on the goods we buy, such as airline tickets, would be very welcome.

However, this needs to go further than simply comparing one airline to another – in order to give an accurate picture of carbon emissions from flights, the comparison would need to be with other transport modes. Choosing a ‘greener' airline might save emissions by a couple of percent. Choosing to travel by train would reduce emissions by up to 90%. Comparing airlines to each other is akin to comparing cigarettes for which one would cause cancer more slowly. 

"We welcome future-thinking based on reality rather than hope."

As the minister for future transport, we welcome future-thinking, but that future thinking needs to be based on reality rather than hope. Aviation emissions accounted for 7% of UK greenhouse gas emissions in 2018: 88% above 1990 levels. This is not a small problem that can be batted away with promises of future technology and offsets. 

It might be possible to have a green future for aviation, but that doesn’t help us right now, and right now is when we need to be reducing emissions.

Suggesting that we can keep on flying as much as we like is rapidly pushing us down the path to there not being a future at all.

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