Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Aviation policy? Rip it up, start again

The Committee on Climate Change report shows that aviation policy – including plans to expand Heathrow – has collapsed

Leo Murray, Tuesday 8 December 2009 19.00 GMT

Lord Turner's Committee on Climate Change has finally published its long-awaited report on the future of UK aviation in the context of a shrinking national carbon budget. It tells us what we already knew: that it is time for a rethink.
Back in 2003 the government produced an air transport white paper that set out plans for expansion at no fewer than 30 airports across mainland Britain. The basic premise was that the aviation industry should be given everything it wanted because more runways are good for the economy. This was no surprise, since the single report that provided the economic justification for the new policy had been paid for by the very same aviation industry that stood to profit from it.
Climate change, even at this late stage, barely featured.
That bias at the highest levels of government has persisted ever since, right up to yesterday's report from the transport select committee. This insists that the 2003 white paper "remains a sensible basis for policy". Again, this is no surprise: the transport select committee is a motley crew of aviation industry stooges, including Graham Stringer, former chairman of Manchester Airport; Heathrow's cheerleader-in-chief, MP David Wilshire (now under investigation in the expenses scandal); and, until recently, climate change sceptic Sammy Wilson (the DUP's former environment minister who banned government carbon reduction advertisements from broadcast in Northern Ireland, calling them "insidious" propaganda).
Lord Turner's report reaches a very different conclusion. Even with generous assumptions about increases in fuel efficiency and the use of tele-conferencing, high-speed rail and biofuels, the CCC's work makes plain that in order to keep aviation emissions at 2005 levels, there can be expansion at no more than a handful of these airports. So what about the other 27? Even the most optimistic assessment must be that the current aviation policy is no longer fit for purpose. Some have chosen to spin today's report as giving the green light to expansion at Heathrow. But the reality is that the entire edifice of UK aviation policy – including Heathrow's third runway plans – has collapsed; its architects must return to the drawing board and start the entire conversation again, but this time taking climate change into account.
What's more, the CCC's report acknowledges that it is missing something important – something that will likely mean that aviation expansion must be reined in even further. Because of outstanding uncertainties in the science and the lack of an appropriate mechanism to include them, the non-CO2 impacts of aircraft emissions have been left out of the calculations. Given that the current best-guess puts these extra warming impacts at roughly equal to the CO2 alone, it is clear that once they are factored in, any further expansion at Britain's airports will almost certainly be untenable.
The transport select committee complains that aviation should not be "demonised" by climate policy, but treated just like every other sector. But if that were to happen, aviation would be having to make 80% emissions cuts over 1990 levels over the next 40 years – just like the rest of us. As it is, the government plans to let air travel stick at emissions levels that are already double what they were in 1990, and force every other person and every other sector of the economy to make even bigger cuts to accommodate this special treatment.
Pensioners struggling with fuel poverty and small companies trying to keep their vehicles on the road; we'll all have to fork out more to pay for a high-carbon leisure activity that is predominantly enjoyed by the rich.
Is this really how we want to spend our precious, shrinking carbon budget? I don't remember being asked.