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The aviation scoping document and the 2011 forecasts: changes since the last white paper

27th September, 2011

On 25th August the Government published updated forecasts of air passengers and aviation emissions; we gave our initial reaction the same day. More detailed comments will form part of our response to the current consultation on the aviation policy scoping document, but we describe here some of the key issues, concentrating particularly on how views and policies have changed since the forecasts informing the 2003 white paper. (Updated forecasts were also published in 2007 and in 2009.)

The passenger forecasts

The 2003 White Paper was underpinned by DfT forecasts of passenger demand and flights. While the Government at the time denied that it was adopting a ‘predict and provide’ approach to airport capacity, it aimed to meet the large majority of anticipated demand with supply – of new and expanded terminals and runways the length and breadth of the UK.

There have been significant changes in the UK aviation forecasts since 2003, however. The previous white paper was based on a forecast of 501 million passengers per year at 2030 – a huge increase from 181 million in 2000. The new forecast is for 335m at 2030 (219 million being the 2009 figure) – a very much lower figure.

There are a large number of detailed changes to the model and data which might help to explain this, but the most significant factor appears to be a lower forecast of economic growth. There is also an assumption that there will be no new runways in the UK, even though the Government moratorium on airport expansion currently covers only the main airports in the South East. While this does contribute to a reduction in the forecasts, the effect is surprisingly small at 2030.

Like those informing the 2003 white paper, the forecasts continue to assume that aviation will continue to benefit from huge tax exemptions, such as a zero-rating for VAT and tax-free fuel.

The emissions forecasts

An important development since 2003 has been the mainstreaming of commitment to tackle climate change and the appearance of the Climate Change Act on the statute book. Nevertheless there is evidence that the Government may be keen to downplay the significance of aviation’s impact on the climate.

As on previous occasions, forecasts of emissions have been published alongside the demand forecasts. As aviation emissions correlate very closely with traffic volumes, a reduction in forecast demand results in substantially lower emissions forecasts. The 2030 estimate is 47.6 million tonnes of CO2 annually, compared with the 58.4 million tonnes forecast as recently as 2009 in a DfT update (The passenger forecast at that time was 455 million at 2030.) Nevertheless, emissions are forecast to significantly exceed the target set under the last government of being no higher in 2050 than they were in 2005, unless further steps are taken to constrain them.

A significant break with other recent forecasts, however, is that the latest figures do not include estimates of future levels of non-CO2 greenhouse gases. Both the 2009 forecasts from DfT and the Committee on Climate Change report on aviation published later that year noted that taking account of the non-CO2 impact of aviation (as a result of water vapour and nitrogen oxides emitted at altitude) would have the effect of roughly doubling the emissions forecast for the sector.

Since the choice of what to model is clearly influential in terms of the Government’s approach to aviation emissions, this change is disappointing, not least as the latest science confirms earlier estimates about the relative impact of CO2 and other gases. As the forecast document notes: “100-year Global Warming Potentials from Lee et al (2009) indicate that, once the non-CO2 climate effects of aviation are taken into account, aviation’s overall climate effects could be up to double the climate effect of its CO2 emissions.” (UK Aviation Forecasts 2011 page 71, box 3.2)