Peter Lockley: Fly less and we'll all be happier

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The Independent Online

The last week has not been a happy one for the aviation industry, nor for the thousands of stranded travellers waiting for the air to clear. But if Eyjafjallajökull's eruption has made us think about the reality of a world with less flying, it could, in fact, turn out to be a blessing.

Without question, there has been hardship for passengers stuck abroad, and economic worries for a few select industries that rely directly on air freight, such as importers of cut flowers. But there are economic upsides too. For every tourist who couldn't fly in to the UK, almost two couldn't fly out, and those two may well be spending money at UK tourist destinations that have suffered in recent years from the rise in cheap flights. The shutdown could go some way to trim the UK's £17bn "tourism deficit" – the difference between what we spend abroad and what visitors spend in the UK. Luckily it's been sunny in Britain, so maybe the charms of Devon or the Lake District will change a few people's holiday habits in the longer term.

But perhaps the biggest economic winner thus far has been the telecommunications industry. Video-conferencing companies are reporting a boom in bookings, while businesses that have already invested in their own equipment will have been among those least affected by the crisis. And on Monday, EU Transport Ministers held a "virtual" meeting via video-conferencing to discuss the impact of the volcano. It may have been a solution born of necessity, but it will hopefully have opened their eyes to how much carbon, time and taxpayers' money could be saved this way.

WWF works hard to promote alternatives to air travel. Through our 1 in 5 Challenge, we're helping businesses and public bodies to cut 20 per cent of their flights. If every business in Europe did so, it would save 22 million tonnes of CO2 a year, equivalent to taking a third of the cars off the UK's roads. The companies we're working with have found that they save huge amounts of time and money, as well as cutting carbon by cutting flights.

It's important to show that we can fly less and still stay competitive. Because while no one is proposing grounding every plane, we'll have to fly less in future if we're serious about meeting our carbon targets. The Government has set a target that emissions from aircraft be no higher in 2050 than they were in 2005. That's a good start (although it will still put an extra squeeze on other sectors).

But the Government now needs to get serious about what that target really means. Luckily, it will be forced to, thanks to some rumblings of a different kind, that took place in the High Court earlier this week.

Earlier this year, a coalition of local councils, residents and green groups, took the Government to court over the third runway proposed at Heathrow. We argued that current plans to expand some 30 airports across the country are incompatible with the UK's climate change targets.

The judge agreed, and on Tuesday, he ordered the Government to sign an undertaking that when it updates its airports policy to fit with the UK's new planning system, it will not use, or even refer to, the Air Transport White Paper which has held sway since 2003. That's a huge win for the environment. It confirms that the Climate Change Act really does have teeth, and that future governments cannot just build huge pieces of carbon-intensive infrastructure without considering the climate consequences.

It also sends airport policy back to the drawing board. The real hope is that when the next Government, whatever its colour, starts to sketch out a new aviation policy, they will look back to the week we couldn't fly but still got on with our lives, and think long and hard about just how much air travel is really necessary.

The writer is Head of Transport of WWF-UK, the British arm of the World Wide Fund for Nature