Ministers will this week scale back plans for a big increase in air travel and new airport runways in an attempt to protect the climate.
The Air Transport White Paper was originally intended to endorse "unconstrained demand" for world travel, almost trebling by 2030, on the grounds that it would benefit the economy. Instead it will outline measures to restrict growth in order to fight global warming.
The dramatic shift of policy outlined in the White Paper, to be published on Tuesday, marks a personal victory for Margaret Beckett. The Secretary of State for Environment has made toning down the ambitions of the Department of Transport one of her main priorities over the past month. She has spent many hours in discussion with the Secretary of State for Transport, Alistair Darling.
The White Paper will propose only one new runway for London's airports - at Stansted - and another short one for Birmingham. Heathrow will have to wait for another decade before a new runway is considered. There are no plans for new airports.
Originally the Department of Transport planned three or four new runways in southern England over the next 20 years to meet an expected rise in passengers from 180 million a year in 2000 to more than 500 million in 2030.
The first runways were expected at Stansted and Heathrow, with a possible new London airport at Cliffe on the Thames estuary. New airports were also mooted for Rugby and Redhill, Surrey.
The change is, however, unlikely to be enough to satisfy anti-airports campaigners. "We don't expect environmentalists to welcome the White Paper, as they want to see no increase in air travel," said a senior government source. "But it is a hell of a lot better for them than looked possible a few months ago."
The change has largely been brought about by alarm at the consequences of emissions of carbon dioxide and other "greenhouse gases" that cause global warming.
A special report by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution last year said it was "deeply concerned at the prospect of continuing rapid increases in air traffic ... and the serious and continuing impact this will have on the prospects for achieving the necessary overall reductions in greenhouse gas emissions". It pointed out that emissions from aircraft are three times more damaging in warming the earth than those from cars, homes and industries, because they are injected directly into the atmosphere.
A report by the House of Commons Environmental Audit committee in July said that, partly because of this, "aviation could become the most significant source of greenhouse gas emissions in the next few decades". It calculated that pollution from increasing air travel could in itself "totally destroy" the Government's commitment to cut national emissions to protect the climate. Ministers were also taken aback by the extent of public opposition to a policy of rapid expansion. The official consultation exercise recorded an extraordinary 400,000 submissions - almost all of them hostile.
The White Paper will propose that air transport is included in a European system of "emissions trading" under which a cap for pollution by greenhouses gases would be set, and industries allowed to trade within it. An airline which came within its limit would be able to sell its excess pollution allowance, while one that exceeded it would have to buy extra rights.
Ministers do not believe that air passenger duty should be sharply increased, because they think it would annoy travellers while yielding little environmental benefit. They are still considering "emission charges" which would be imposed at different levels, depending on the pollution to be released during the flight.Reuse content