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New report claims growth in aviation has had no effect on industry emissions

25th January, 2017

A critical look at Responding to the Carbon Challenge, by Airlines UK

Trade association Airlines UK (formerly the British Air Transport Association) last week published a report claiming to show “how the industry can meet the UK’s demand for air travel, while ensuring it limits its environmental impact and hits its stringent targets on reducing emissions”. A foreword from the Chief Executive of Airlines UK and Graham Brady MP claims that the report will “help to set the record straight” about the carbon challenge facing aviation.

Emissions drop between 2006 and 2015

In particular the report notes that between 2006 and 2015, growth in UK aviation has been delivered without any increase in CO2 emissions. Possible reasons for this, Airlines UK notes, are the purchase of new, more efficient aircraft, improvements in air traffic management, and an increase in the percentage of flights filled.

AEF has previously noted that the number of passengers per aircraft has been increasing in recent years. Between 2000 and 2015, the number of air traffic movements (ATMs) in the UK grew by just 0.6%, while over the same period the number of UK air passengers grew by 32%, as a result of a shift to larger aircraft and better usage of available seats. This is particularly notable at Heathrow, where passenger numbers have continued to increase despite the airport supposedly being at capacity.  

But after the recession, CO2 is forecast to grow

The key question, however, is what scale of impact this will have on future CO2 emissions from aviation. The period addressed by the Airlines UK report is unusual in that it includes several years of global recession, which directly impacted aviation demand and therefore emissions. The Government’s latest forecasts, published in 2013, predicted that the drop in emissions post-recession would not return to the high of 2005 until around 2018, but that after that emissions would continue to grow, even on an assumption that no new runways are built, and even taking into account likely improvements in fuel efficiency and in air traffic management over time.

Still no answer on how to bring aviation into line with the Climate Change Act

While the Government predicted a slower growth in passenger numbers post-recession than has in fact been the case, the long term forecast of CO2 growth remains problematic. The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has advised (most recently in a letter to the Energy Secretary) that in order to meet the requirements of UK climate legislation aviation emissions should be no higher in 2050 than they were in 2005.

While in many ways this is far more generous than the emissions cuts expected of other sectors, the aviation industry knows that it will nevertheless be hard to meet and has therefore never been willing to support regulation or legislation that could hold it to the target. The Airlines UK report predictably remains silent on this issue, referring only to the possibility of offsetting future growth in aviation emissions by way of the UN’s ‘CORSIA’ scheme.

If the aviation industry is confident that the CCC’s emissions recommendation can be met, it should say so. And if the Government is confident that the target won’t be compromised by building a new runway, despite its own forecasts of emissions growth, it should respond to the CCC’s repeated calls for an aviation emissions plan setting out how this can be achieved. Until then, there are no grounds for the industry to claim that the carbon challenge facing aviation is solved.