Airport expansion is either the end of carbon budgets or the end of cheap flights
This is a slightly extended version of an article that was originally published by the Guardian.
You might hope we’d learn our lesson. But less than two month after the EU referendum, with the promised £350 million replaced by looming job losses and downgraded growth, we’re on the brink of falling for another fantasy.
This time, it isn’t the promise of a magic money tree: it’s the claim that we can build a new runway without needing to worry about our carbon emissions.
When the government’s Airports Commission endorsed the expansion of Heathrow last year it was challenged to explain how the UK could expand its airports without breaking climate change laws that limit greenhouse gas emissions.
It was a reasonable question. Like most countries, the UK has a tough emissions target for 2050 and, even though aviation has been given an easy ride compared with other industries, the sector is on course to exceed its generous limit. That’s the case even without adding a new runway. Increasing the number of flights from the UK would put the target further out of reach.
Undeterred, the commission responded with reassurance that we can build a new runway without breaking our climate limits. Its confidence seems to have put most people off looking into the details: that and the way the commission scattered, across hundreds of pages in several different publications, its explanation of how it had achieved what seemed impossible.
Analysis that I co-authored might help explain why the commission appeared so reluctant to spell out its workings. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a less popular way of winning public support for a new runway than its suggestion for how expansion could avoid breaking our climate limits.
The essence of the commission’s suggestion is simple, even if the details are difficult to pin down. It proposed that the government could allow a new runway to be built without busting the emissions cap, by hiking the cost of tickets so fewer people can afford to fly. Its idea is to build a new runway in London then increase prices so that demand for flights falls, particularly at airports in poorer parts of the country.
No one can say precisely how big the price increase would need to be to keep the country within its limits, because it depends on how quickly flight technology improves, but today’s report estimates how much more tickets might have to cost.
If technology to make planes more fuel-efficient progresses as quickly as the commission optimistically suggests, a return ticket to New York – from any UK airport, not just the one with the new runway – would become about £270 more expensive after a new runway is built. But if technology moves more slowly, as many analysts think it will, the flight could cost £850 more. Price increases like these would spell the end of budget flying; long-haul trips would be affordable only to the rich.
People worried about climate change shouldn’t kid themselves that this is a realistic solution to the emissions problems a new runway brings. It’s near-impossible to imagine the government putting such a high price on flying purely to protect the environment: after all, it couldn’t bring itself to increase fuel duty for drivers this year despite two years of falling prices. It’s far more likely that a new runway – and the rest of the UK’s airport capacity – will be used, busting our climate limits.
If the runway really is built, the best hope of keeping flights affordable without breaking our climate targets may be for the government to tax frequent fliers at a higher rate than those going on holiday just once or twice a year, so more people can still travel. This approach was outlined last year by A Free Ride and could be the cleanest and fairest answer, but would depend on a level of serious political engagement with this challenge that has so far been absent.
Sometime soon the government will finally make a decision about a new runway. To many, it seems the question of how the runway can avoid breaking our climate change law has been resolved, but in fact, all we’ve had is a series of possibilities. We should understand where the path leads before taking another step into the dark.