Michael McCarthy: Airlines see emissions trading as a get-out clause

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The Independent Online

Britian's aviation policy is still cruising along cheerfully in the wrong direction, the new figures for proposed airport expansion make clear, but there's an awful crunch coming.

The vast growth in airport capacity, passenger numbers and runways currently planned under the 2003 Aviation White Paper cannot go ahead unchanged if Britain is to meet its targets for tackling global warming, targets that were given new emphasis by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown this week after the publication of the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change.

Consider: as flying continues its headlong boom, greenhouse gas emissions from aircraft are rising faster than those of any other sector in the economy. At present, aviation accounts for just under 6 per cent of UK emissions, but they are shooting up. According to British Airways' own projections, by 2050 they will range from 17 per cent of the total (under a scenario of low traffic growth and high fuel efficiency), to no less than 46 per cent of the total (under a scenario where growth was high and fuel efficiency low.)

But the picture can be expressed in an even more alarming way. According to the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, if by mid-century Britain cuts its total carbon emissions by 60 per cent, as the Government wishes, but aviation does not scale back its own emissions, flying will then be taking up all the emissions that are available. That is, everything else - business, power generation, home heating - will have to go to zero, to allow flying to continue.

Yet remarkably, the aviation industry does not envisage cutting back its rate of growth, climate change or no climate change. It sees its salvation in the European Union's Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), where it thinks it will be able to buy permits to continue emitting, and simply pass on the cost to customers, while actual reductions in emissions are left to ground-based industries. Andrew Sentance, who was BA's chief economist and head of environmental affairs, admitted this in June.

The industry's enthusiasm for the ETS makes it look as if it is taking the environmental problem seriously, when in fact it has spotted a get-out clause. The only thing that will make a real difference is to scale back the rate of growth in flights. No one denies that this is an enormous problem politically, not least because if you put up prices to discourage flying, it is people on low incomes who will be disproportionately hit - a very hard thing for any Labour government to countenance. Yet there are potential ways forward, such as cutting back on the huge number of short-haul flights to destinations where there is already a good rail alternative.

The Government will have to do something, or its climate policy will be a nonsense. It is committed to reviewing the 2003 Aviation White Paper by the end of the year. Watch this space.