A second bailout for Flybe would prove the Conservatives’ climate promises are hollow

No government can be tough on the climate emergency without being tough on flying.

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The current UK target date for net-zero emissions is 2050, by which point London could be as hot as Barcelona and large parts of Lincolnshire could be underwater. Since 2008, the Committee on Climate Change has set carbon budgets lasting four years as a means of independently assessing whether or not the government is on track to meet its 2050 pledge. The first two budgets were met, while the third is set to be outperformed. But on the current trajectory, the government will start to fall behind its net-zero target during the fourth budget lasting from 2023 to 2027.

That is because there is only so much that technology can do to reduce our emissions. At some point, British lifestyles will have to change. Russell Group universities recently produced a report entitled Absolute Zero, which makes it clear that the government is falling behind its 2050 target specifically because it hasn’t yet faced up to the necessary questions of behaviour. In other words, it isn’t making the tough choices.

As the report notes: “For twenty years we’ve been trying to solve the problem with new or breakthrough technologies that supply energy and allow industry to keep growing, so we don't have to change our lifestyles. But although some exciting new technology options are being developed, it will take a long time to deploy them, and they won't be operating at scale within thirty years.”

The report identifies two industries in particular where the numbers simply don’t add up: flying and shipping. “Although there are lots of new ideas about electric planes, they won’t be operating at commercial scales within 30 years, so zero emissions means that for some period, we'll all stop using aeroplanes.”

In short, to meet the 2050 net-zero target, we will not only have to fly less, we will probably have to stop flying altogether. Yet last month, Boris Johnson’s government allowed loss-making British airline Flybe to defer a tax bill of around £100m and continue operations. The airline has duly announced it is to start running new routes to Teesside airport (a region with a Conservative mayor and several newly-elected Tory MPs). The government is effectively encouraging us to fly.

But despite last month’s respite, Flybe’s finances remain parlous  and now there are whispers in Westminster that the franchise could yet again ask for further government backing. 

The original decision attracted the ire of rival airline bosses such as Willie Walsh, the CEO of International Airlines Group, and Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary, who complained that the decision amounted to a breach of competition rules. The government laughed away the suggestions on the basis that increasing access to regions was part of its “levelling-up” agenda – Flybe operates out of Exeter and runs a large number of flights to other regional airports such as Belfast, Newquay and Aberdeen. 

But the row exposes an important and glaring inconsistency in the government’s current thinking. On the one hand, Johnson wants to diverge from EU rules on state subsidies in order to prop up carbon-intensive industries. On the other hand, the Conservatives vowed to address the climate emergency in their election manifesto, declaring: “We will lead the global fight against climate change by delivering on our world-leading target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, as advised by the independent Committee on Climate Change.”

If the first Flybe bailout raised questions over the government’s commitment to the 2050 target, a second would prove definitively that its climate promises are hollow. Actions, after all, speak louder than words. No government can be tough on the climate emergency without being tough on flying.

[See also: Boris Johnson should be judged by his actions on climate change, not his words]

George Grylls is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2019.