HomeLow carbon futureThis is how the UK can manage its flying addiction

This is how the UK can manage its flying addiction

People boarding plane, travelersThis post is by Greg Archer, UK director at Transport & Environment.

The UK has a flying addiction that, if left unchecked, will wreck its climate commitments. In the past 20 years the number of passengers flying to and from the UK has doubled and more Britons travelled abroad in 2018 than any other nationality, making us one in 12 of all international travellers.

Aviation now accounts for seven per cent of UK CO2 emissions, and flying’s true warming impact is two to four times that of its CO2 emissions when non-CO2 emissions are taken into account. As other sectors decarbonise, by 2050 aviation is expected to be the highest emitting sector in the UK economy. By failing to tackle aviation emissions, other sectors will be expected to cut substantially more.

While train tickets cost so much people won’t stop flying
Switching large numbers of passengers from high carbon flying to low carbon rail services or electric cars is essential, but also unrealistic when the price of the ticket is often so much more by train. There is no tax on aviation fuel, no VAT on plane tickets and airlines receive free credits for the emissions trading system (ETS). Air Passenger Duty (APD – £13 each way domestically) is the only tax payable on a flight and it has remained unchanged for five years.

Aviation receives unfair subsidies and doesn’t pay its way, and any reduction of APD on domestic flights would increase its unfair advantage. A government that claims to be a climate leader, and which will be hosting the COP26 climate conference in November, should be reforming, not reducing, APD and investing to both improve rail services and reform the service to cut costs.

The recent Flybe crisis illustrates the conundrum faced by governments. Flybe is the UK’s most important regional airline, providing connections between some of the remotest parts of the UK. Its service from the Isle of Man to Liverpool has a contract to transfer patients requiring specialist care. But it also flies from Newquay to London, a trip that can, and should, be made by train and is currently subsidised by the taxpayer £5 each way per passenger.

Had Flybe collapsed, many of its routes would simply have been taken over by competitors and unviable routes discontinued with valuable take-off and landing slots sold. Any strategically important routes could have been retained through a public service obligation. The climate emergency demands that airlines no longer be cosseted, but instead be made to pay their way and radically cut their emissions.

We need to tackle frequent flying
So how can aviation become climate compatible? The review of APD the Treasury has announced in response to the Flybe crisis is an opportunity to introduce a more equitable system that specifically tackles frequent flying.

Over half of UK citizens didn’t fly at all last year and 70 per cent of all flights are taken by just 15 per cent of passengers. It is the reckless frequent fliers who are driving up emissions. Variable APD that increases with the number of flights taken would raise total revenues and provide a strong incentive to fly less whilst leaving families still able to afford a summer break.

The review of APD should also be extended to look at other opportunities to ensure aviation pays its way. This could include levying VAT and fuel duty on domestic flights and agreeing bilateral agreements with the Netherlands and other countries that want to apply excise duty to aviation kerosene.

If aviation fuel and tickets were taxed (at the minimum rate allowable under EU rules) it would add about £46 to a return ticket from London to Berlin which, bought in advance, currently costs considerably less (calculation based on a return trip from London to Berlin in an Airbus A320 and a load factor of 0.85; fuel burn taken from ICAO CO2 emissions calculator; with 20 per cent VAT applied on a £100 ticket and fuel excise duty).

The Climate Change Committee has just published advice on the land use policies needed to deliver net zero, including a proposal for a levy on polluting industries, such as aviation, to fund the cost of afforestation. If implemented, it would also increase the cost of aviation and ensure it pays its way and reduces its unsustainable growth.

Investment in zero carbon fuels is the way forward  
Demand reduction is essential as technology improvements in aircraft efficiency are entirely unable to keep pace with the growth in flying and the larger the sector becomes the more difficult it will be to decarbonise.

Rather than reduce its own emissions, the aviation industry’s solution is to pay others to cut their emissions and buy offsets to stabilise, not reduce, emissions, through a scheme known as Corsia. However, the disastrous recent climate talks in Madrid failed to reach any agreement (for a second year) on the rules governing how carbon markets will operate. Some countries want to count the emission reductions they have sold to others (double counting) and others want to carry old, discredited credits forward. With no credible offsets to buy, Corsia is dead on arrival.

The unsustainable growth in the aviation industry also cannot be resolved through a shift to electric planes. These are not “on the horizon,” as one myopic minister recently suggested, and will never provide a solution to anything but the shortest flights, which themselves represent a tiny portion of overall aviation emissions.

A much more promising opportunity is shifting to e-kerosene (also known as electrofuels, e-fuel or synthetic fuel), produced by combining CO2 captured from the air with renewable hydrogen. The result is a zero carbon synthetic drop-in liquid fuel to replace fossil jet fuel.

At present there is no requirement on operators to buy e-kerosene, which is around six times more expensive than conventional jet fuel. But the UK should take a lead in mandating a low volume of e-kerosene to be used for domestic flights from 2023, thereby creating a market. Once safeguards and supplies are established, the mandate can be steadily increased and extended to all flights leaving the UK. E-fuels will always be more expensive than kerosene. Without a requirement to buy the fuel there will be no investment in production and, as e-fuel is more expensive, the cost of flying will slowly rise.

We have the solutions, now we need the political will
It is clear that net zero will not be achieved unless we begin to tackle runaway aviation emissions. As a first step, the transport secretary should respond to the letter from the Climate Change Committee on how to tackle aviation emissions and include international aviation emissions in the UK’s climate budgets.

As there is no short term technology fix to bring down emissions, a combination of tax policies can equitably reduce demand for flying from the relatively small number of frequent fliers who take most of the seats on inefficient planes and routes. This would also remove the need for a third runway at Heathrow and new terminals elsewhere.

With demand under control, a steady increase in the use of sustainable fuels will bring down emissions and provide a new product for the UK’s chemical and refining industries. The solutions are available; until now, political will has been lacking. The forthcoming Aviation Strategy will show whether there is any more willingness to begin to manage the UK’s flying addiction.

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Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.