Airports study misses the point

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The run-up to the international climate talks in Paris coincides with the period in which the government will make its decision on new airport capacity.

When it came to power in 2010 the Tory/Lib Dem coalition ruled out any new runways but just two years later, under pressure from big business, it set up the Airports Commission. Chaired by the financier Sir Howard Davies, it was tasked to look again at whether new runways would be needed and, if so, where they should be.

The commission was asked to report, conveniently, a month after the 2015 general election. At the time of writing, its report is expected in late June or early July.

In an interim report the commission concluded that a new runway would be required in the south east of England by 2030 and narrowed its options to either a third runway at Heathrow or a second one at Gatwick.

The government has said it will merely note Davies’s findings and make a decision on where it wants a runway by the end of this year.

Big business largely favours Heathrow but a second runway at Gatwick would be more politically deliverable: the local environmental downsides are fewer and there is considerable opposition in the cabinet — from “big beasts” like foreign secretary Philip Hammond and home secretary Theresa May — to expansion at Heathrow.

Of course, whether the government goes for Heathrow or Gatwick, the climate change impacts will be similar.

According to the Committee on Climate Change, the government’s official advisers, one new runway could be built and allow aviation to meet its carbon target that CO2 emissions in 2050 are no higher than they were in 2005.

In reality it is not as simple as that. The Committee on Climate Change is assuming every other sector will meet much tougher targets than those set for aviation. A new runway in the south east would rule out significant growth at any other airport in the country.

But whether aviation meets its target or not skates over a deeper and more relevant question: shouldn’t aviation — the fastest-growing contributor to CO2 emissions in the world — be trying everything possible to cut its emissions?

In rich countries this is perfectly possible. The vast majority of flights from the UK consist of people taking short-haul leisure trips. And most of those are taken by the richest 10 percent of the population.

Fiscal measures could be introduced which would reduce short-distance flying in a way that is entirely equitable.

At present aviation pays no tax on its fuel and little VAT. Imposing a fuel tax might discriminate against ordinary working families who struggle to find the means for the occasional holiday in the sun.

But measures such as a frequent flyers levy would work very differently. The idea, being promoted by organisations such as the New Economics Foundation, would be to allow everybody one tax-free flight a year (should they wish to take it) but for the tax to rise with every additional flight they take.

Early calculations suggest it would be a progressive way to reduce demand, cut emissions and remove the need for a new runway.

If some of the money raised was then ploughed back into the railways to cut fares, there would be a shift from short-haul flights to rail. For most leisure passengers high fares, rather than potentially longer journeys, are the deterrent to using the train.

If the government is serious about making a real difference to climate change, then rather than plan for a new runway at Heathrow or Gatwick, should it not be looking at creative and equitable ways to cut our dependence on flying?

The left and the green movement have credible arguments and real solutions when opposing the call for new runways and new airports.

Moreover, the fact that international rail travel could be a viable alternative to flying allows trade unions to make the case for a “just transition” towards more jobs in the railway industry to replace any that may be lost in aviation.

As the Paris summit approaches, the left and the greens have a chance to set the agenda on aviation rather than buy into the framework set by the government with the backing of big business.

John Stewart is a member of the Campaign Against Climate Change and chair of HACAN, giving a voice to residents under the Heathrow flight paths.