Leading article: A minister's hot air about cheap flights

Michael O'Leary, the brash boss of the low-cost airline Ryanair, is not perhaps the man to turn to for judgements on the environment. His response to the landmark Stern review was, after all, that it was "a report by an idiot economist". But it was disingenuous of the environment minister Ian Pearson to brand Mr O'Leary "the irresponsible face of capitalism" for refusing to take climate change seriously.

Mr Pearson is frustrated at the response of the airlines in the Government's attempt to reach a voluntary agreement on controlling emissions. The O'Leary position is that aviation generates just 1.6 per cent of greenhouse gases and the real cause of climate change is cars and power stations; Gordon Brown's decision to double airport tax from next month was "just another tax". On the latter he has a point; the increased tax will do nothing to encourage more economical use of planes and will not help to save the planet at all.

But the main point is that expecting cavalier capitalists like Mr O'Leary to volunteer for curbs is unrealistic, given the highly competitive state of the aviation market. It is the Government that controls the real levers of change.

The prime task, as the Ryanair boss suggests, is to find ways to encourage nations such as China not to choose "old coal" technologies for the new power stations it plans to open. But something has to be done about the airline industry too. Air travel is under-taxed compared with other forms of transport. Flight emissions are the fastest-growing contributor to global warming. And many flights are not necessities in the way that heating a home is.

There is growing political consensus here. The Tories are discussing plans for taxing domestic flights to encourage people to travel by train. The Liberal Democrats published detailed proposals for ending the low tax status of air travel last year. And just before Christmas, the EU proposed that all flights within Europe should be included in the carbon trading scheme.

Aviation cannot escape its share of responsibility. But individuals like Michael O'Leary cannot be expected to embrace that willingly. The Government and its European partners need to take firm action to force the airlines collectively into that emissions trading scheme.