Preparing for Take-Off

The government knows that its airport plans will cancel out all its efforts to tackle climate change.

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 19th December 2006


I suppose I should be flattered. In a speech to fellow airline bosses a few days ago, Martin Broughton, the chief executive of British Airways, announced that the primary challenge for the industry is to “isolate the George Monbiots of this world”(1). That shouldn’t be difficult. For a terrifying spectre, I’m feeling pretty lonely. Almost everyone in politics appears to want to forget about aviation’s impact on the environment.

On Wednesday the secretary of state for communities launched a bold plan to make new homes more energy efficient. She claims it will save 7 million tonnes of carbon(2). On Thursday Douglas Alexander, the transport secretary, announced that he would allow airports to keep growing: by 2030 the number of passengers will increase from 228 million to 465 million(3). As a result, according to a report commissioned by the department for environment, carbon emissions will rise by between 22 and 36 million tonnes(4). So much for joined-up government.

The government says it will cut carbon dioxide emissions by 60% between 1990 and 2050. Last month it promised to introduce a climate change bill, which will make this target legally binding. Douglas Alexander’s decision ensures that the new law will be broken.

A 60% cut means that our emissions by 2050 must amount to no more than 65 million tonnes of carbon(MtC). The “best case” figures produced by the Department for Transport would see emissions from air transport rising from 4.6 to 15.7 MtC – or 24% of the target for the whole economy. According to the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, “this is likely to be a very substantial understatement”(5).

The Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research estimates that the UK’s aeroplane emissions are more likely to amount to 32MtC by 2050, or 49% of the target(6). The report produced for the department for environment, by researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University, calculates that they will rise to between 29.8 and 44.4 MtC by 2050, or 46-68% of the target(7). This, they say, is an underestimate, as they don’t include non-scheduled flights.

None of these calculations takes into account the other greenhouse gases aircraft produce. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, these create a global warming effect 2.7 times as great as the carbon dioxide alone(9). Nor do they recognise the fact that 70% of people flying out of the United Kingdom live in this country: all the estimates give the UK a 50% share of the flights landing or taking off here, rather than 70%(8). Throw these numbers into the equation, and you discover that aviation will account for between 91% and 258% of all the greenhouse gases the United Kingdom will be permitted, under the new law, to produce in 2050.

So how does the government navigate this contradiction? It’s simple. It doesn’t include international aircraft emissions in its target(9). Whatever their impact on the world’s atmosphere might be, they don’t officially exist.

No one now pretends that the industry can design its way out of this. The department for transport’s wildly optimistic figure (a mere 91% of the UK’s target) assumes improvements in efficiency which most observers believe will be impossible to realise. After a 70% reduction in the fuel consumed by jet engines over the past 40 years, they have pretty well reached their limits, while radical new aircraft designs and new fuels are, at best, several decades away from commercialisation. Even Martin Broughton admits that the airlines’ fuel efficiency gains “are likely to be outweighed by future growth”(10). So the government relies on two other mechanisms, taxation and trading. It knows that neither of them will work.

Gordon Brown announced two weeks ago that he will double air passenger duty, from £5 to £10(11). This merely reverses the cut he made in 2001. In its white paper on aviation, the transport department investigated the effect of a bigger levy – a 100% fuel tax. This, it found, would increase the airlines’ prices by 10%(12). But the growth of the no-frills carriers would be sufficient to offset it, ensuring that there was no suppression of demand(13). Air passenger duty might begin to bite at 10 times its current level. Is there anyone in government who has the guts to make that happen?

Brown’s pathetic levy is counteracted by subsidies which he has managed, so far, to keep mostly hidden from public view. It turns out that the government has been authorising “route development funds” to establish “new links from regional airports”(14). European rules permit governments to provide up to 50% of the start-up costs for regional airports and their new connections(15). Last week, for example, the Guardian reported that Derry City Council has been secretly giving Ryanair £1.3m a year(16). Our money is being used to subsidise climate change.

Tomorrow, the European Union will wave its wand and make the airlines’ carbon emissions magically disappear. It will incorporate them into the European emissions trading scheme. According to Douglas Alexander this is “the most efficient and cost-effective way to ensure that the sector plays its part in tackling climate change.”(17) The airlines can keep growing, he argues, as long as they buy carbon permits from other industries, who can cut their output more cheaply. All that counts is that the European economy as a whole is reducing its emissions – it doesn’t matter how they are distributed.

So how is this going to work if aviation accounts for 258% of all the greenhouse gases the target permits us to produce? Or even 91%? Again, there is sleight of hand involved. The other greenhouse gases don’t count – the trading scheme recognises only carbon. But even if we were to accept its restricted terms, why should aviation force the rest of the European economy to reduce its emissions much faster than the average? Is flying more important than heating and lighting?

You can shuffle carbon between different industries when the overall reduction you are trying to achieve is just 8%, and still stay within the cap. But when you go much beyond that point, as the EU must in 2012, almost every industry will have to start making cuts of its own. So what happens when the growth in flights outstrips the cuts the other industries can make? How will the airlines cut their emissions in order to stay within the scheme? If the government knows, it hasn’t told us.

Douglas Alexander knows as well as I do that emissions trading is a red herring. In his new report is a table showing what would happen if trading raised the price of carbon to the government’s upper estimate of £140 a tonne by 2030 (this is 32 times the current price(18)). It would mean that instead of 465 million tickets sold in 2030, there would be 455 million(19). That sorts it out then.

The only certain means by which the growth of flights can be curtailed is by restricting the capacity of our airports. Aviation expands to fill the available landing space. Unless the government’s decision to double the size of the UK’s airports is reversed, the rest of its climate change programme is a waste of time.

Come on out British Airways, Virgin, Ryanair, easyJet, BMI, the British government, the opposition and most of Middle England. I’ve got you surrounded.


1. Martin Broughton, 6th December 2006. Speech To The Aviation Club.

2. Ruth Kelly, 13th December 2006. Shaping a low carbon future – our environmental vision.

3. Department for Transport, 14th December 2006. The Future of Air Transport Progress Report.

4. This assumes that current annual emissions from aviation are 8MtC. B.Owen and D. Lee, March 2006. Allocation of international aviation emissions from scheduled air traffic – future cases, 2005-2050 (Report 3). Manchester Metropolitan University Centre for Air Transport and the Environment, Final report to DEFRA Global Atmosphere Division, plus Data Appendix, cited in Sally Cairns and Carey Newson, September 2006. Predict and decide: aviation, climate change and UK policy. Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford.

5. House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, 7th August 2006. Reducing Carbon Emissions from Transport.

6. Alice Bows, Paul Upham and Kevin Anderson, 16th April 2005. Growth Scenarios for EU & UK Aviation: contradictions with climate policy. Report for Friends of the Earth Trust Ltd. Tyndall Centre for Climate Change.

7. B.Owen and D. Lee, March 2006. Allocation of international aviation emissions from scheduled air traffic – future cases, 2005-2050 (Report 3). Manchester Metropolitan University Centre for Air Transport and the Environment, Final report to DEFRA Global Atmosphere Division, plus Data Appendix, cited in Sally Cairns and Carey Newson, September 2006. Predict and decide: aviation, climate change and UK policy. Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford.

8. See Jonathan Leake, 18th December 2006. Exposed: Britain’s dirty secret. New Statesman.

9. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2001. Aviation and the Global Atmosphere: executive summary.

10. Martin Broughton, ibid.

11. HM Treasury, 6 December 2006. Pre-Budget Report 2006, Chapter 7.

12. Department for Transport, December 2003. White Paper: The Future of Air Transport.


13. ibid, p154.

14. Department for Transport, 14th December 2006, ibid, p33.

15. Climate Action Network Europe and European Federation for Transport and Environment, 4th July 2006. Clearing the Air: The Myth and Reality of Aviation and Climate Change

16. Owen Bowcott, 13th December 2006. Ruling to reveal local council’s secret deal to lure Ryanair. The Guardian.

17. Department for Transport, 14th December 2006. ibid.

18. See the graph at

19. Department for Transport, 14th December 2006. Table C1, Annex C, The Future of Air Transport Progress Report.