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UK Climate Assembly calls for new aviation taxes and airline investment in carbon removals

September 10, 2020

Today the UK Climate Assembly – a ‘citizens’ assembly’ set up by six parliamentary select committees – published its recommendations on the path to net zero. The Assembly was composed of a broad and representative sample of members of the public, including some who described themselves as knowing very little about climate change at the start of the process and some who were climate skeptics, to discuss how the Government should approach its legal requirement to cut emissions to net zero by 2050. 

The Assembly met (either in person or, later, virtually) over a number of weekends to develop their vision, and to hear presentations from the Committee on Climate Change, academics and ‘advocates’. On air travel these speakers included Prof Jim Watson from UCL, Prof Alice Larkin from the University of Manchester, Leo Murray from Possible and Rachael Everard from Rolls Royce (whose presentation argued that flying is “the very backbone of modern, inclusive society”). 

The two key overarching recommendations from today’s report were, perhaps, the call for better public information and education about climate change, and the need to deliver net zero in a way that is fair, including to workers. The air travel proposals express a desire among assembly members to allow people to keep flying and hopefulness about future technologies, together with a recommendation that the cost of flying will need to increase, at least for those racking up the most air miles annually, and that the industry should pay the costs of removing (not offsetting) the carbon it generates. A majority of assembly members thought that the UK should be planning for a far lower level of aviation growth than the 50% that the Government was predicting before the pandemic (which was already based on an assumption of no new airport capacity.) 

80% of assembly members ‘strongly agreed’ or ‘agreed’ that taxes that increase as people fly more often and as they fly further should be part of how the UK gets to get zero.” This is significant, and something that AEF and other NGOS have called for. The Treasury has previously indicated that it will be coming forward with proposals for how to deliver greener aviation tax.

Assembly members would like to see the airline industry invest in greenhouse gas removals.” Carbon removal technologies are not currently being used in the UK. We support the proposal that polluting industries such as airlines, insofar as they continue to emit CO2, should bear the costs and risks involved in developing carbon removals. 

Assembly members strongly supported the need to invest in the development and use of new technologies for air travel.” Our view is that this investment should be paid for by the aviation industry, and that policy measures that hold airlines to account for their emissions, such as formal inclusion of aviation in the UK’s carbon budgets, are the best way to incentivise this.

The Assembly was cautious about recommending a reduction in flying, fearing impacts on people’s person liberties. Interestingly, however, the section of the report that was written following the Coronavirus lockdown indicates that many assembly members said that their attitudes on travel, and on the extent to which people would be willing to adopt new habits, had changed significantly. One member said:

I used to think that I needed to fly for holidays or to see family or for business, but I’ve now seen that we can make do with less flying. If we had of had the assembly meetings on air travel after the spread of coronavirus and the lockdown, I would have voted very differently for a solution that leads to less flying. Solutions I never would have imagined possible have now already happened. We don’t need to wait to transition to a world with less flights. It’s already here. Now we just need to invest in the alternatives.

We’ll be reflecting on the implications of the Assembly’s report for our own work going forward.