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Why is Aviation a problem?

If the aviation industry were a country, then it would be the 7th largest emitter in the world. Reducing its emissions is therefore essential if we are to mitigate the effects of climate change.

The UK must play a big part in this. The UK has the biggest aviation market in Europe and the third largest in the world. Meanwhile, London has the world’s busiest airport system. As a result, aviation contributes 7% of the UK’s emissions, up from 5% in 2005.

Failure to tackle climate change will also have a big impact on aviation. The increasing frequency and severity of storms will cause more disruption to flights. Indeed, we have seen changes just in the last few years. In 2014, weather caused 2,400 minutes of delays each day, but in 2018 that figure has risen to 14,600 minutes per day. Furthermore, coastal airports, such as those in Hong Kong and Barcelona, will become more susceptible to flooding as a result of rising sea levels. Climate change is also expected to lead to 2 to 3 times more turbulence in Atlantic flights.

While it is widely recognised that emissions from aviation need to be reduced, it is proving much harder to do this in practice. While progress has been made in making planes more fuel efficient, the technology to bring about a zero emissions aircraft is not yet commercially viable and passenger numbers continue to rise.

Government Policy on Aviation

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The Committee on Climate Change has said that if the UK is to meet its current emissions target then aviation emissions must be reduced to 2005 levels by 2050. However, the Government is expected to announce a new target for achieving net zero emissions in 2019, which will mean that emissions reduction from aviation will have to be bigger and faster.

International Civil Aviation Organisation’s

On a Global level, the UK signed up to the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s 2016 agreement to tackle emissions from aviation. This is an agreement between 191 countries that, from 2021, will require airlines to offset any growth in aviation emissions that are above 2020 levels. Airlines will offset these extra emissions by investing in things like reforestation.

However, critics have argued that the deal is too weak for the following reasons:

  • The deal does not go far enough to align the aviation industry with the targets set out in the Paris Agreement.

  • Airlines will only have to offset CO2 emissions that go beyond 2020 levels. The industry therefore won’t be taking action to reduce its emissions.

  • While 191 countries have signed the deal, only 65 countries will be a part of the scheme from the start. The scheme will only become compulsory for all 191 countries by 2027.

Airport Expansion

There has been a long running debate about airport capacity in the South-East of England, and in June 2018 Parliament voted to approve plans for a third runway at Heathrow Airport. There is concern that this cannot be reconciled with the UK’s emissions targets. Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary, says that the UK can still meet its emissions targets even with an expanded Heathrow Airport because improvements in technology will help to reduce emissions. However, it is not certain that the technological improvements will happen fast enough to make this the case.

This problem could be exacerbated if other UK airports also continue to expand. Bristol Airport, for example, is seeking to double the number of passengers using the airport to 20 million per year by the 2040s. Meanwhile, investment at Gatwick Airport could increase the number of passengers using the airport from 45 million to 70 million by 2032.

Research and development

The Government has supported research and development of alternative fuels and electric planes. The Aerospace Technology Institute will receive £1.95 billion for aerospace research between 2013 and 2026, the majority of which will go towards environmentally sustainable aerospace technology. Furthermore, in June 2018 the government committed £2 million towards research into low carbon planes fuels, while in July 2018 £343 million was committed to research into electric planes.

Aviation Strategy

2019 should see the announcement of the UK Government’s aviation strategy. This will set out how the government plans to reduce emission from aviation in the long term.

What can I ask my MP to do?

  • You could talk to your MP about a Frequent Flyer Levy. This is a tax on those who regularly use air travel and the aim is to reduce the demand for flights. There are a number of ways that this could be implemented but one way could be to let everyone have one tax free flight per year. The frequent flyer tax would then start at a low level for the second flight and increase steadily for each extra flight per year. The revenues could be used to offset emissions or to support the development of greener alternative. You could ask your MP to write to the Secretary of State for Transport supporting this proposal.

  • A third runway at Heathrow Airport would make it incredibly difficult for the UK to meet its emissions targets. You could discuss this with your MP and ask them to write to the Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, to urge a rethink.

  • However, as mentioned above, Heathrow isn’t the only airport planning to expand. You could talk to your MP about your concerns around the expansion plans at Manchester, Bristol or Gatwick.

  • While the government has made some commitments on funding research and development, it does not go far enough to bring about the technological progress needed. You could get your MP to write to the Transport Secretary, asking him to include more funding for sustainable aerospace research and development in the government’s Aviation Strategy, due to be published in 2019.

  • At the moment, the UK aviation industry is part of the EU’s Emissions Trading System (ETS). This means airlines have to buy permits for the emissions they produce and if they emit more than they are permitted then they must pay a fine. However, Brexit poses questions about whether the UK will still be a part of this, particularly if the UK leaves in a ‘no deal’ scenario. You could talk to your MP about the need for the UK to remain part of the ETS or develop an alternative after we leave the EU.


Date published: 17/01/2019

Last updated: 17/01/2019