The plane truth

Tim Yeo MP, former Shadow Environment Secretary, urges the Government to tackle aviation and its impact on climate change

There can scarcely be a reader who hasn’t enjoyed a cheap flight recently. Whether it’s Alicante or Aberdeen, most of Europe is now accessible to air travellers at unbelievably low prices. At the same time, anyone who values the tranquillity of the countryside is understandably starting to get agitated about the intrusion of more and more noisy aircraft, especially as the smaller regional airports expand.

But the greatest damage is climate change. Now that aviation is the fastest-growing source of greenhouse gases in the transport industry, it’s time action was taken to curb the harm it is doing.

We should make a start by raising air-passenger duty for all internal flights. It would be logical to link the rate of this duty directly to the emissions per person caused by a particular flight. It would encourage airlines to use greener low-emission aircraft and travellers to make greener transport choices. The revenues raised could be recycled to cut VAT and road tax (VED) on low-emission cars, making them cheaper to run than gas-guzzlers and creating a win-win outcome for climate change.

What’s more, it would raise public recognition of the link between flying and carbon emissions. Surveys show that only one person in seven is aware of the degree of damage caused by aviation.

The consciousness-raising element of the duty increase could be backed up by requiring airlines to include emissions information on adverts and tickets (including e-tickets) for all their flights – just as car adverts now have to do. The Government could do all this now, at least for internal flights, as there would be no complex international negotiations involved.

Finally, we should not allow the expansion of runways or the building of new airports, until either an international aviation tax comes in, or a proper Europe-wide emissions trading scheme is operating, alongside higher air-passenger duty inside the UK and information about emissions in advertisements.

I don’t accept that it would automatically hurt the economy to raise the cost of flying in order to capture its cost to the environment.

If it made some people think twice about flying abroad or about buying imported food flown in from thousands of miles away, that could be good for the British economy. If we are remotely serious about tackling climate change, we have to start cutting aviation pollution fast. Sadly, politicians are too scared of putting up the cost of air travel, never mind the fortune that it will save us in the future. But are politicians right to be timid?

Would people be prepared to pay more for their aeroplane tickets if they knew the money would be spent on protecting our environment? I want us to start a debate on it in the environmental business community.

Tim Yeo is the Conservative MP for South Suffolk. He was Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment between 2004 and 2005. Prior to that, he shadowed health, education, trade and industry, culture media and sport, agriculture, and environment and transport. In Government, Tim served as Minister of State for the Countryside and Environment from 1993 to 1994, and held other posts at the Home Office, Foreign Office and Department of Health between 1988 and 1993. Tim has represented South Suffolk since 1983. As a backbencher, he served on the Health, Employment and Treasury Select Committees.

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