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Government aviation strategy offers no vision on environment

31st May, 2022

‘Flightpath to the Future’ is, the Government says, a new ‘strategic framework’ for the aviation sector for the next ten years. In 2018 the Government had published for consultation “Beyond the Horizon: the future of UK aviation”, but the process for developing this policy was paused during the pandemic and this new framework has been published as an alternative. 

The pandemic hit aviation hard. Flights were grounded and there were significant job losses. People’s travel plans were also suddenly upended. On the other hand, neighbourhoods impacted by aircraft noise finally got some relief. Many of us adapted, and two years on it seems likely that holidaying in the UK or near Europe has become more normal and attractive. There is also widespread speculation that business travel may never go back to previous levels now that people are so comfortable with videoconferencing and businesses continue to set their own climate targets (because one thing that didn’t change during the pandemic was both public concern about – and corporate commitments on – climate change). 

There could hardly be a better moment for the Government to start talking about how these environmental and social benefits that have resulted from less flying can be protected. Instead, as this new publication shows, ministers seem desperate to show the aviation industry (parts of which complained bitterly about not getting more bailout money and tax breaks during the pandemic) how committed they are to persuading people to get back to the skies. Ongoing government support for airport expansion is mentioned over and over again, and the new strategy insists that policies on expansion that were written before either the pandemic or the passing of net zero climate legislation “continue to have full effect, as a material consideration in decision-taking on applications for planning permission”. A new body called the Aviation Council has been announced, to bring together Government and industry to shape aviation policy and to drive forward the aims of the strategy document.  

Rather than promising, as we might have hoped, to work with climate scientists and environmental health officers to determine a sustainable pathway for aviation going forward, the government will instead “work hand-in-hand with the industry to help it grow and return to pre-pandemic levels of demand and profitability”. Rather than noting that its own analysis suggests that zero emission aircraft, if they take off commercially at all this side of 2050, will scarcely dent the sector’s overall emissions, the Government repeats that its “ultimate goal is nothing less than guilt-free, zero emission flying.” And rather than acknowledging that employment in aviation is likely to continue to fall even if the sector grows (given the historic trends towards automation and low-cost flying) and committing to helping workers transition, the policy simply plans to extend the lifetime of its Aviation Skills Retention Platform, which supports people with finding employment within the aviation sector. 

There is no sustainability framework on offer here. Instead, the plan for cutting carbon emissions is coming later, we are told, in the Jet Zero Strategy, and the plans for reviewing noise policies and tackling local, what are euphemistically termed, “air quality emissions” (otherwise known as air pollution) around airports will follow some time in 2022/23. This is a strategy simply for growth. Before the pandemic, when UK aviation emissions reached an all-time high, the industry was  “thriving” it insists; and the creation of “motorways in the sky” – the concentration of flights that can generate the incessant noise for those underneath – will , “deliver direct benefits to passengers, airports, airlines, and the communities surrounding them”. 

Beyond Government pronouncements on strategy, changes in society will continue to take place. These are often overlooked in the Government’s demand forecasts which are based simply on GDP growth. Companies that have made near-term climate commitments will increasingly be looking to cut back on air travel compared to its pre-pandemic levels. Proposals for airport expansion will continue to face opposition, including court action, and there appears to be a weakened business case and wavering investor support. (FYI, Heathrow is not home and dry on this front; Good Law Project is waiting in the wings given the Government’s commitment to review the compatibility of the Airports NPS with net zero once the aviation climate strategy is published.) And if effective policy on carbon pricing is introduced and passed through in ticket prices, and if consumer awareness about climate change continues to grow, then demand and emissions may not bounce back. But the Government’s plans as set out in Flightpath to the Future, offer no guarantees over the next ten years for cuts in emissions, noise, or air pollution. Those gains will all need to be fought for.