Green groups tell airline boss and minister to stop bickering and act

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The Independent Online

Vivid proof that what to do about climate change and aviation is now the toughest environmental dilemma came yesterday, in a remarkable three-cornered squabble between the Government, the airline industry and the green movement.

The Environment minister, Ian Pearson, lambasted the cut-price airline chief Michael O'Leary over greenhouse gas emissions from aircraft; Mr O'Leary hit back with a no-holds-barred denunciation of the Government, and environmentalists attacked them both for failing to tackle the fastest-rising cause of global warming.

Increasing concern about the growing contribution to climate change from jet exhausts was behind Mr Pearson's charge that the airlines were failing to take the problem seriously, in particular low-cost firms such as Ryanair that have led the industry's huge expansion in recent years.

Ryanair, in particular, was showing itself to be "the irresponsible face of capitalism", over the matter, Mr Pearson said. "O'Leary just seems to take pride in refusing to recognise that climate change is a genuine problem." Mr O'Leary, the outspoken founder and boss of the Irish no-frills carrier, countered by calling Mr Pearson "foolish and ill- informed", saying he did not have a clue what he was talking about. "It is time Minister Pearson and other equally foolish politicians actually tackled the real cause of climate change, which is road transport and power generation," he said.

Furthermore, he charged that Gordon Brown's recent doubling of air passenger duty from £5 to £10 was merely a money-grabbing exercise which in reality did nothing for the environment ­ a charge already made by a wide range of commentators. He added that Mr Pearson "talks a lot but does little" and that Ryanair was "Europe's greenest airline".

However, both Mr O'Leary and the Government came under attack from environmentalists. "Ian Pearson is right, Ryanair is an eco-dinosaur," said Doug Parr, chief scientist of Greenpeace. "But when it comes to actual policy, there's very little difference between the airline industry and Tony Blair. Both support airport expansion and think emissions trading is a good way to sweep the issue under the carpet, and the positions of both of them are utterly at odds with the science. When it comes to flying, Tony Blair is the irresponsible face of a hypocritical government."

The row is the clearest illustration yet that what to do about aviation is the most difficult political problem in tackling climate change. The aviation industry is growing remorselessly, led by the global boom in cheap flights ; in Britain alone, today's figure of 180 million-plus passengers per year is on course to rise to nearly 500 million by 2030.

Yet with this huge jump in journeys will come a colossal leap in exhaust emissions of carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas, which in flight are injected directly into the stratosphere. UK aviation emissions account for just under 6 per cent of the UK total, but by the mid-century they may be as high as 46 per cent. And if Britain wanted to reach its target of cutting CO2 by 60 per cent by 2050 ­ and aviation did not cut back ­ the emissions of everything else would have to go to zero.

The heart of the problem is that there is no technical fix. The only way to get emissions down properly is to have fewer flights ­ and neither the airline industry nor the Government has yet been able to face this. The industry cannot accept that its business should stop growing. The Government cannot face the major vote-loser that would be pricing people off cheap flights­ especially this Labour Government, which believes low-cost flying has brought many benefits to the lower paid.

Gerry Doherty, general secretary of the transport union TSSA, said: " The minister's attack on Ryanair would carry much more weight if the Government had acted to curb rail fare increases which have made our railways the most expensive in Europe.

"They know and we know that it is six times more environmentally-friendly to travel by rail rather than air but their policies are pricing travellers off railways and into the air."

He went on: "Here we have a Government talking tough on the environment but acting weakly. This hypocrisy must stop. If they were serious about cutting air pollution, they would direct rail subsidies to cheaper fares rather than private shareholders."