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Aviation expansion and why we're flying into the face of danger

With plans for a third runway at Heathrow, London, ploughing full steam ahead despite fierce opposition, the growth of the unchecked aviation industry continues to threaten the UK’s legally binding responsibility to cut carbon emissions.

The international agreement, signed by representatives from 195 countries in Paris 2016, requires the UK to fulfill pledges to limit their greenhouse gas emissions during the 2020s to keep global warming to a rise of two degrees celsius. The UK government’s own advisors, the Committee on Climate Change, have said that to meet our obligations the UK’s electricity system must practically decarbonised by 2030. Yet despite this, the promotion of fracking and aviation industries by the Conservative government show little concern for the agreement or the future.

And this contempt is by no means simply a national issue. Significantly, the aviation and shipping industry were mysteriously exempt from the Paris Climate Agreement despite projections showing that by 2050, these two industries could contribute to 40% of global C02 output. A failure to manage the emissions of these industries would devastate imperative plans to limit global warming.

Campaigner Sarah from Airport Watch explains, “Current aviation emissions are equivalent to those of Germany. The industry has also always been treated as a special case, so while other industries have to take part in the Paris agreement, they don’t. The industry hopes to have triple the number of passengers as it does now in 2050. It also just buys the emissions cuts of other sectors meaning their own cuts are wiped out. What that means is that either the UK fails its 2050 commitments or every other industry cuts their emissions by 90%.”

Yet UK campaigners have a solution to the growth of the national aviation industry: a frequent flyers levy that would target the 15% of UK flyers who take 70% of all flights.

John from the Frequent Flyers Group explains, “Flying is not a bad thing in itself because flying enables us all to meet each other, to do business with each other but also to meet family and friends and share in each other’s cultures. It can really be a benefit. But there are some problems if we fly too much. Particularly there’s a big problem between flying and climate change.”

Mike from campaigning group Plane Stupid elaborates: “Britain has a particular problem with flying. We’re an island, we used to have an empire and so we have a lot of global links. People in Britain fly a lot more than other countries.  Aviation demand is growing at a rate that greatly outstrips technological advancements. You can’t solve the problem just with technology; what you have to do is manage transport demand. It’s something that is very difficult for politicians to take on board. There are terrified of implementing demand restraint. They’re frightened of the political fallout.”

He also explains the clever way in which the aviation industry has marketed a tax on demand. “When you have a big corporate business as the enemy, people are very much on your side, but when you’re talking about demand as the enemy, it’s very difficult to pitch that to the public. Denyers use the hardworking family holiday as a talisman to win. We need to the change the terms of that debate. Annual family holidays are not a problem when it comes to carbon emission. Yes, it emits a lot of emissions but it’s manageable. The problem is the wealthy elite driving demand for trips to tax havens and second homes.”

“Half of the British population”, he explains, “do not fly at all. That shows you that the half of the population who do, are doing a lot of flying. Fewer than 15% of the population took three or more flights last year. That 15% have taken 70% of all flights, and that figure is very striking when you start to think about the pressure put forward for new runaways.  13% of the richest 20% of the population take 7 or more flights per year and the most popular destinations are tax havens. You could not make that up - these are not business flights.

“Get rid of air passenger duty, impose a frequent fliers levy and give people one tax-free flight per year and 85% of the British public will be materially better off under this scheme. It also brings in a lot more tax which at a time of austerity is a good thing.”

Tax is a controversial issue for the aviation industry. Jet fuel is the only fossil fuel banned from being taxed by international treaty and research from campaign group A Free Ride shows the annual value of this tax subsidy is around £11.4 billion. As campaigners point out, that’s enough to reverse the cuts to legal aid, disability benefits and buses, scrap tuition fees, employ 5,000 more nurses and build ten new hospitals every year.

Yet aviation bosses and the government remain determined to push through expansion plans, using Brexit as an opportunity to promote industry growth. In February 2017, transport secretary Chris Grayling ignored research showing that only 10% of UK plane trips are made up of business flights to argue, “Aviation expansion is important for the UK both in boosting our economy and jobs and promoting us on the world stage. We are determined to seize that opportunity and if we have the right infrastructure in place it will allow us to build a more global Britain. By backing the north-west runway at Heathrow airport and publishing our proposals, we are sending a clear signal that when we leave the EU, we are open for business.”

His remarks serve to further indicate the disregard of the government for the promise made in Paris. They also show a worrying lack of concern for the future of our planet.


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