Cheap flights threaten UK targets for carbon emissions

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The boom in foreign travel generated by cheaper air fares and no frills airlines will wreck Britain's attempts to bring climate change under control, environmentalists fear.

As the travel industry prepares for record bookings in 2006, green groups expressed concern over the "failure" of the Government to curb the availability of cheap flights that have sent aviation pollution surging. Fumes spewed out by jets are expected to become the single biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

The increase reflects the steady rise of overseas travel, which is growing at between 5 and 6 per cent a year. According to a study by Mintel this month, tourism from the world's leading 15 outbound tourism markets is likely to double between now and 2020. Britons, second only to the Germans for volume of travel, are forecast to take 101 million foreign trips by 2020. Greenpeace warned that level of air travel would be "catastrophic" for climate.

The Government's stated aim is to cut carbon emissions in the UK by 60 per cent by 2050, but the figure does not include aviation, which currently accounts for about 15 per cent of Britain's carbon.

According to the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, aviation will generate 43 million tons of carbon by 2050 - a seemingly unworkable 66 per cent of the Government's 65 million ton target.

On present trends by 2050, one green organisation, the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, estimates that air travel will account for the entire "sustainable" carbon quota of this country.

"The forecast growth in aviation represents one of the most unsustainable trends in UK society," the cross-party Environmental Audit Committee warned.

The shadow Environment Secretary, Peter Ainsworth, who chaired the Environment Audit Committee at the time of its report in 2003, is likely to push the issue up the agenda. He said aviation pollution was one of the areas being examined by the party's quality of life commission, led by Zac Goldsmith.

The combination of the amount of fossil fuel required to take off and the carbon emitted was a "cocktail of disaster," Mr Ainsworth said. "I think there's a huge degree of ignorance about this. But it's the hardest of the climate change problems to solve because people really like leaving the country and they don't care that it's bad for the balance of payments or bad for the environment."

The Government believes that a proposal to include airlines in the EU's carbon emission trading scheme will alleviate the problem - a move which does not satisfy environmentalists.

Over the next few years travellers may find themselves at the centre of an ever-louder debate about the impact of their journeys. BA already offers long-haul passengers the option of paying a levy that goes to plant trees to offset the carbon emitted on their flight. The industry magazine Travel Weekly believes other airlines may soon follow.

Another idea is for personal carbon allowances; consumers may have to wrestle with whether to experience the enjoyment of travel or to stay at home.

When package tourism took off in the 1960s and 1970s few could have imagined the phenomenal rise of air travel. Once the annual holiday was typically spent by the British seaside, now Europe, America, Africa and even the Far East are the destinations.

Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and Transport 2000 called on the Government to tax air fuel and halt the planned expansion of British airports. They urged individuals to consider switching to less polluting forms of transport, such as trains. Richard Dyer, of Friends of the Earth, said: "What's happening with low-cost travel is that it's setting up unsustainable patterns of behaviour, so people are buying property in France that they wouldn't otherwise and flying to Prague rather than taking the train to Edinburgh for stag dos. Ending or changing these patterns of behaviour is all the harder to do once they are established."

A study by the London Sustainable Development Commission in April 2004 found that five and possibly six of the top 10 destinations for air travel from London could be served by high-speed trains, which are eight times less polluting than planes.

Jason Torrance, campaigns director of Transport 2000, said: "It's undeniably attractive to travel on a low-cost flight from England to the south of Spain. But as individuals we are all actors in the crisis of climate change, and we as individuals should be questioning whether our travel is necessary. I'm not suggesting people should stop all flying but getting onto a plane and causing vast amounts of pollution is a very serious action."

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