Government to offset carbon emissions for ministers' flights

Every flight by a minister or civil servant on government business will be offset by payments into funds that help developing countries cut their carbon emissions, under a new scheme.

The announcement yesterday is designed to end criticism that ministers have been preaching the importance of tackling climate change while adding to the problem with their frequent flights abroad.

Environmentalists welcomed the move, but warned that it will have only a minimal effect on the problem of the world's ever-expanding air traffic, which is the fastest growing source of carbon emissions from the developed countries.

The Chancellor Gordon Brown has resisted pressure to increase flight taxes or put an extra tax on every aircraft that takes off from a UK airport. It is feared that increasing the cost of flights would have only a limited effect on the number of people who travel by air, with the worst hit being those families who can only afford low-budget holidays.

But ministers believe they have to set an example if the UK is to retain its leading role in worldwide negotiations over combating climate change. After last July's Gleneagles summit, where Tony Blair pushed climate change to the top of the agenda, the organisers paid £50,000 to development projects in Africa to offset the cost to the environment of ferrying the leaders of the world's richest nations to and from Scotland.

The Cabinet Office issues details every year of how often ministers have travelled abroad. When the next set of figures comes out in the summer, they are expected to show that ministerial and civil service air travel is equivalent approximately to 100,000 flights from London to New York.

Last year's figures showed that Mr Blair had been abroad 21 times in the previous year, using a mixture of Royal Squadron and charter flights. The Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett was nicknamed "air miles Margaret " when it emerged that she had made 26 trips abroad and had used the Queen's Flight for no fewer than 18 of them. The Liberal Democrats calculated that her journeys would have sent 31 tons of carbon into the atmosphere.

Friends of the Earth aviation campaigner Tony Bosworth said: "The Government can't put its house in order by just offsetting its emissions ­ it must also urgently review its aviation policies. The runaway growth of aviation threatens to make it virtually impossible to meet our long-term climate targets. Ministers must abandon plans to allow a massive expansion in UK airports and increase air passenger duty (airport departure tax) as a first step to fair taxation of the industry."

The Liberal Democrat environment spokesman Chris Huhne said: "Voluntary agreements must be welcomed if they are to raise awareness of the environmental damage caused by aviation. However, we must remember that they are a sticking plaster solution that does nothing to address the real problems of growing demand and growing emissions. An initial step would be to scrap air passenger duty and replace it with an emissions charge on each aircraft taking off."

The Climate Change minister Elliott Morley appealed to British tourists travelling abroad for Easter to become more aware of the environment impact of their journeys, and to consider offsetting them with a contribution to the Travel Foundation. The Foundation, set up with the support of holiday companies aims to encourage "sustainable tourism". It promotes measures such as low-energy technology in hotels and better insulation.