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UK Government urged to curb aviation demand to achieve carbon goals

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has urged the UK Government to try and curb demand for flights in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In a letter to the secretary of state, the MP-led group said that aviation is likely to be the largest carbon-emitting sector in the UK by 2050, even given strong progress on technology and a limit placed on demand.

Penned by Lord Deben, the chairman of the group, the letter also noted that aviation has climate-warming effects beyond CO2 which will be “important to monitor and consider within future policies”.

Aviation emissions could be reduced by around 20 per cent from today to 2050 through improvements to fuel efficiency. This will mainly be driven by use of sustainable biofuels and by limiting demand growth to “at most” 25 per cent above current levels.

The letter warned that the Government needed to assess its strategy for providing airport capacity in the context of cutting emissions and make sure investments make “economic sense” in a net-zero world.

Proposals to build a third runway at the UK’s busiest airport Heathrow were approved last year and Gatwick is considering using its emergency runway for routine flights.

The committee said that these expansions are “likely to leave at most very limited room for growth at non-London airports”.

Including the emissions in the legally-binding net-zero target will show the scale of deployment needed for measures to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to offset the emissions caused by flying.

Chris Stark, CCC chief executive, said: “Now is the time to bring the UK’s international aviation and shipping emissions formally within the UK’s net-zero target.

“These are real emissions, requiring a credible plan to manage them to net-zero by 2050. Their inclusion in the UK target will complement international approaches and increase confidence that the Government is prioritising their reduction, ensuring the net-zero target covers all of the UK’s emissions.

“As the UK prepares to host the next major climate summit in 2020, we are well placed to show global leadership on this fundamental issue of international concern.”

Leo Murray, director at campaign group 10:10 climate action, said aviation had been given a “free ride” in climate policy for too long, with politicians putting it in the “too hard” box.

Murray said the Government was talking up electric planes, which should be an innovation priority, but the potential for technology to contribute to carbon cuts in a short timeframe was limited.

“The CCC make it very clear that growth in demand for flights from UK airports cannot continue unchecked. That’s why we need to introduce a frequent flyer levy.

“Most of the environmental damage from air travel is caused not by annual family holidays but by very frequent leisure flights by those at the top end of the income spectrum.

“A frequent flyer levy is the fairest and most effective way to keep aviation emissions within safe limits, at the same time as protecting access to some air travel for all,” he said.

Dr Doug Parr, chief scientist for Greenpeace UK, said the Government’s current aviation strategy is incompatible with the net-zero target “and must be revised”.

“The new strategy must focus on restricting demand growth and will either require Heathrow’s third runway being cancelled or capacity restrictions on other airports to balance Heathrow’s expansion.”

A Department for Transport spokeswoman said: “The fight against climate change is the greatest and most pressing challenge facing the modern world and this Government recognises that aviation and shipping have a crucial role to play in tackling it. The Government has already made clear its commitment to zero-emission shipping in the Clean Maritime Plan, which was published earlier this year.

“We are also committed to setting a clear ambition for the aviation sector and will carefully consider the advice of the Committee on Climate Change when we publish our position on aviation and climate change for consultation shortly.”

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