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8 January 2007

Minister should stand firm on aviation

Aviation is a huge threat to the environment - and this government is as much to blame as airlines

By Sian Berry

So at last someone in the Government broke ranks over aviation. On Friday, with Climate Change Minister Ian Pearson calling Ryanair the ‘unacceptable face of capitalism’ and describing plans for US airlines to sue the EU over new landing at European airports as a ‘disgrace’, it seemed for a moment that perhaps his tough language might translate into some tough action.

Alas, only a day later, Mr Pearson was called into the headmaster’s office by Environment Secretary David Milliband, and told to ‘get back in your box and stay there’, while the climate skeptics’ pet pitbull, Ryanair chief Michael O’Leary, called him a ‘foolish and ill-informed’ politician.

But there is nothing foolish about Mr Pearson’s views. He couldn’t be more right about the huge threat from aviation, but he doesn’t seem to appreciate that the Government he is part of is as much to blame as individual airlines. As Green MEP Caroline Lucas pointed out, ‘If he really feels this way about the airlines he should resign from the Government in protest’.

The problem is that Defra’s aim to reduce carbon dioxide emissions is being scuppered on a daily basis by the work of another ministry: the Department of Transport, which is responsible for plans to build five new runways at major airports by 2020 and to expand the use of dozens of smaller airports all around the country. If this goes ahead and flight numbers increase as planned, emissions from aviation will overtake all other industries within a couple of decades, leaving our climate commitments in tatters.

But if Mr Pearson did resign, where should he go? Not to the Tories or the LibDems, that’s for sure. Both are busy supporting climate-wrecking projects all over the country. Voters in Manchester, Norwich, Devon and Sheffield have all seen LibDem councillors warmly supporting the expansion of local airports, and Tory councillors are failing to live up to David Cameron’s new green sheen by supporting just about every new road or runway in sight.

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At the risk of sounding predictable, I wonder if maybe he should think about joining the Greens. Caroline Lucas has been on the case for years and drafted the European Parliament’s position on aviation and climate change which was adopted by MEPs in July last year.

Thanks to lobbying by the airlines, this position was watered down by the European Commission so now plans to include airlines in the EU emissions trading scheme have ended up being more of a windfall for the industry than anything that will curb their activities. Under the scheme, airlines will be given 90% of their ‘pollution permits’ for nothing, enabling them to profit from selling them to other industries.

Aviation emissions are especially damaging because they occur at high altitude, so the other emissions produced by burning fossil fuels – nitrogen dioxide and water vapour – can do even more damage than carbon dioxide alone. What the Greens in the European Parliament wanted to see instead was a completely separate trading scheme for aviation that would guarantee reduction in all these emissions over time.

Greens at home in the UK are fighting the expansion of Heathrow, Stansted and many, many local airports, and we are coming up against some familiar myths. One of these is that more flights from local airports helps local economies. This just isn’t true.
Aviation is vastly under-taxed: flight tickets, aircraft and aviation fuel are zero-rated for VAT. The Treasury collects far less in air passenger duty per year than it forgoes due to this loss of excise revenue. Aviation fuel still pays no tax at all. A Green Party study in 2003 showed that, effectively, people in the UK are subsidising aviation with a colossal tax break of £9 billion a year – equivalent to each of us donating more than £200 to the aviation industry. And this is not including the hidden subsidies from plans to expand airports, which will include the costs of building and maintaining the transport infrastructure to serve them – all to be done at public expense.

Even tourism represents a drain on the UK balance of payments of £11 billion a year, as cheap flights take activities that would otherwise benefit local areas, such as stag nights, to far away countries.

Another accusation that is regularly thrown at me is that, by opposing new runways, I want to ‘deprive poor people of their hard-earned holidays’. No, in fact the problem is richer people flying more often. Increasing the number of flights will just make it easier for those people who are already taking several annual holidays to fit in even more city-breaks and spa weekends in Thailand, instead of doing exactly the same activities in this country.

This stands to reason when you think about what going on holiday really involves. The Government’s plans to expand aviation won’t help people who can’t afford a holiday. Flights can hardly get cheaper than they are, and the cost of a flight is a relatively small expense compared with putting up a family in a hotel or apartment for a week.

There is growing evidence that proves cheap ticket prices mean the wealthy fly more often, rather than enabling those who currently don’t fly to get away. A Civil Aviation Authority passenger survey in 2003 found that the average passenger salary at cheap flight capital Stansted Airport was £46,000, while a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research has shown that the top three social classes take more than 75% of low-cost flights.

The objections to curbing aviation growth are in a very similar vein to those we faced when starting the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s. You can always point out some essential tasks for which people need 4x4s, and it was never those owners we were campaigning against. But the huge growth in sales was definitely a problem, and the needless waste of 4x4s becoming a fashion item urgently needed to be pointed out.

In many ways it’s even harder to tell someone you don’t think their hen night in Prague is a good idea than it is to tell them their Range Rover is awful, but if Mr Pearson can stick to his guns and more MPs and ministers join us in saying it, we may just start to get somewhere.

It’s clear that Defra and the DfT need to resolve their differences soon, and that the Government as a whole has to make up its mind if it is serious about tackling climate change. If it is, it will encourage sustainable travel and not use public money to help multiply emissions from aircraft or highly polluting cars. If not, it will continue to promote and assist growth in these damaging industries. It can’t have it both ways.

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