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Aviation expansion policy is not compatible with climate target, say Government advisors

8th December, 2009

Growth in demand for air travel will need to be curbed, says a report published today by the Committee on Climate Change. While improvements from technology, better air traffic management and biofuels will all help to reduce the carbon impact of flying, they will not be enough to bring aviation emissions down to the Government’s target. In order to ensure that aviation emissions are no higher in 2050 than they were in 2005 we will need additional measures, say the Committee, such as carbon taxes or new constraints on airport expansions.

The Government’s target that aviation emissions should be stabilised by 2050 was announced in January this year alongside its decision to expand Heathrow airport, and the Committee on Climate Change was asked to advise on how this could be achieved. Because of the growth in emissions between 1990 and 2005 , the target for aviation is equivalent to a 120% increase on 1990 levels. The Committee’s earlier analysis found that in order to ensure an overall cut of 80% in UK emissions, most other sectors of the economy will need to reduce their greenhouse gases by 90% compared with 1990 levels to make up for the less stringent target applied to aviation.

Today’s report sets out three scenarios for aviation emissions between now and 2050, labelled ‘likely’, ‘optimistic’ and ‘speculative’. New policies to speed up the pace of fleet renewal and air traffic management, revolutionary new aircraft technologies and the biofuel from algae, which feature in the optimistic and speculative scenarios should not be relied on to deliver carbon cuts, the Committee say. Government policy should instead be based on its likely scenario, which assumes a 0.8% per annum improvement in fleet fuel efficiency and 10% takeup of aviation biofuels by 2050. This would allow a 60% increase in passenger numbers while still keeping within the climate target.

But current policies will be insufficient to constrain demand growth to this level, says the report. Even if expansion plans were frozen at 2030 and carbon prices (increasing to £200 by 2050) were added to air tickets, passenger demand would increase by 115% unless further measures are introduced to constrain demand. In contrast to the 4.4 million air traffic movements predicted for 2050 in the Department for Transport’s January 2009 forecasts, only 3.4 million ATMs can be accommodated under the Government’s carbon cap, the Committee has calculated. Carbon taxes or other regulatory measures will be needed to help close the gap.

The Committee also notes that the Government’s target refers only to carbon dioxide. If the non-CO2 impacts, such as increases in nitrogen dioxide and cirrus-cloud formation, were to be taken into account, the emissions budget available for aviation may, in future, need to be halved.

The report makes no recommendations on expansion at Heathrow or any other airports. Lord Turner, Chair of the Committee on Climate Change, said at the launch event today that these decisions were for Government and had to be taken in the context of local economic conditions.

An AEF press release is available here.

The CCC’s report can be downloaded from their website here.