The Heathrow 13: Airport expansion or a taming of the few?

Blog / Transport / Uncategorized / ZCBlog / Zero Carbon Britain

On 24 February 13 protesters against airport expansion, already convicted of ‘aggravated trespass’, will be sentenced.

The Plane Stupid protesters, who occupied Heathrow’s north runway for 6 hours in July last year, are likely to be jailed for 3 months for protesting against airport expansion and its impact on climate change.

Photo credit: David Leiser

Regardless of the outcome of this case, expanding Heathrow is thought to be at odds with meeting the UK Government’s legally binding targets under the Climate Change Act. The Government in 2009 set a target to get aviation emissions to 2005 levels by 2050 (37.5Mt CO2). The Climate Change Committee looked at options for this target and considered it achievable with various technical measures together with an overall 60% increase in passenger demand by 2050 compared to 2005 levels.

However we are not on course to meet even these generous targets. Carbon dioxide emissions from out-bound aviation have doubled since 1990 due to increased passenger demand, and are forecast to increase further due to a projected doubling in passenger numbers by 2050. As other sectors decarbonise, aviation is set to become a quarter of total UK greenhouse gas emissions.

While the Airports Commission have suggested that expanding Heathrow is compatible with meeting the Government’s climate target in 2050,  the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, who took evidence on this in 2015, showed this depended on a number of theoretical policies and there were serious doubts about whether this could be achieved in practice. The Committee recommended the government set out its strategy to deliver on its aviation emission target no later than Autumn this year.

As part of CAT’s Zero Carbon Britain: Making it Happen project we are looking at aviation emissions and how to overcome the barriers to reducing them. There are so many reasons why this relentless growth in flying is so difficult to stop. Studies show we place a strong value on holidays and the freedom of choice that flying offers. Frequent and distant travel provides social status. The weekend travel supplements are full of exotic or must-see destinations, skiing holidays and Caribbean beach resorts. People are funnelled into air travel through a combination of cost and convenience, reinforced by practices within the tourism industry, which makes slow travel less appealing. Other research has shown that individuals who are environmentally conscious in other areas justify flying as a trade-off for their behaviour at home.

Yet this growing demand for flights is surprisingly disproportionate. We were very struck by the research commissioned by the campaign group A Free Ride that reveals that a staggering 70% of flights in the UK are taken by 15% of the population, while over half of the population took no flights at all in 2014. The majority of UK flights are not business flights or family holidays but leisure trips taken by a small group of wealthy frequent flyers. Other studies verify that the bulk of aviation emissions are generated by a small minority of people and it is thus suggested by researchers Christian Brand and Brenda Boardman that we need a taming of the few. There are even suggestions that ‘binge flying‘  is a new form of addictive behaviour. The research for A Free Ride also reveals that per capita emissions from air travel are higher in the UK than any other country, and twice those of the USA!

So how to get the political and economic elites who are contributing most to carbon emissions from flying, to change their travel habits?

A Free Ride has come up with a solution in the form of a frequent flyer tax to replace Air Passenger Duty, which helps address the disproportionate impact of a relatively small proportion of wealthy individuals. Under this proposal a levy is set at zero for the first outbound flight and then increased progressively for each subsequent flight (eg £20 for the second flight, £60 for the third reaching £420 by the ninth flight). This is estimated to prevent passenger demand from increasing by more than 60% in 2050 in line with the Committee on Climate Change recommendation, and will obviate the need for airport expansion.

Simple, ingenious and fair.

Elsewhere in Europe groups such as Taming Aviation are lobbying to remove the tax exemptions currently given to the aviation industry which mean that we are all subsidising cheap flights whether we like it or not. The aviation industry is receiving tax exemptions in fuel duty and VAT (for plane tickets) estimated to be around £10 billion in 2014, which dwarfs the revenue from Passenger Air Duty of £3 billion/year.

Climate change is the world’s biggest threat and growth in passenger air travel is outstripping any reductions in carbon emissions from aviation due to technological improvements. We cannot build our way out of this problem by expanding airports; instead we need to suppress demand for air travel through financial disincentives and by making it socially unacceptable to be a frequent flyer. In particular we need to change the habits of a disproportionate few who we are subsidising at the expense of the planet.

Lisa Hopkinson