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What should the government do?

The coronavirus outbreak has caused an unprecedented drop in demand for flights. What can the government do to ensure that climate targets are met once travel restrictions are lifted?

24 Mar 2020 3 min read

In September 2019 the UK’s Committee on Climate Change wrote to the government with advice on how aviation can reach net zero by 2050.

Part of the report focussed on demand, with the net zero scenario assuming 25% growth – too high according to some campaigners, but still much lower than the 70% growth that the UK aviation industry is pushing for.

Achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 is a legally-binding target. Here are our top policies for a UK government to adopt, to help get a grip on emissions from aviation.

1. Formally include international aviation in the net zero target

Currently, only emissions from domestic flights are included in the net zero target. International flights taking off from UK airports should be included. If we leave a growing chunk of emissions out of our plans because they are a bit too hard to tackle, we will fail in our ambition to avoid dangerous climate change.

2. A moratorium on airport expansion

The recent recommendations against Bristol and Stansted expansions as well as the ruling that a third runway Heathrow would be illegal have been welcomed by anti-aviation campaigners. But many other UK airports are planning to grow, and if they do so we will definitely miss our net zero target. We need a national policy to stop all airport expansion.

3. A fairer tax system

Currently, there is no tax on kerosene (aviation fuel), meaning that flights are often artificially cheap especially when compared to overland transport such as trains. The playing field needs to be levelled with VAT on plane tickets and a kerosene tax. It has been estimated that a tax on aviation fuel in Europe would cut both passenger numbers and emissions by 11%.

70% of flights in the UK are taken by just 15% of the population. Introducing a frequent flyer levy would both incentivise people to fly less as well as ensuring that the polluter pays.

4. Carbon labelling at time of booking

Flight booking websites should show average carbon emissions per passenger for each journey, compared to UK annual per person emissions. These ‘nudge’ measures can help consumers make informed choices and are similar to measures already used for items such as food.

5. A ban on advertising for flights

When it became clear that smoking was a Public Health issue, the government banned the advertising of tobacco products. Air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from aviation are an equal, if not worse, Public Health issue. A ban on advertising for airlines would contribute to the social shift away from aviation.

6. No bailouts

It is unfair for private companies to receive public money if they have a largely tax-free ride in the good times, and airlines are no exception. Public money should be reserved for companies that operate in the public interest.

Stick or carrot?

While ‘stick’ measures such as these can lead to behaviour change, they should go hand in hand with ‘carrot’ measures such as: cheaper trains; more routes; and more obvious and user-friendly booking systems for overland travel.

The Committee on Climate Change says that if, instead of 25% growth, the UK could keep demand to 2018 levels, it would save 8 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent by 2050. It says that it will take a change in consumer preference or social norms to achieve this, which is where campaigns like Flight Free UK come in.

Government policy and individual action are not mutually exclusive. It will take both to get aviation's net emissions to zero by 2050.