Transport

The UK government’s new aviation strategy is a plan for climate chaos

Posted in Climate Majority, Transport on October 23rd, 2017 by Leo – Be the first to comment

This was originally published by openDemocracy

Arguments about a new Heathrow runway may have receded to a distant rumble, but it’s an increasingly important question, with the government now planning to drop rules intended to make a new runway compatible with climate limits.

In the effort to limit climate change, a new Heathrow runway is a big deal. It would produce around 9 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, which is about 8% of all the emissions the UK can release in 2050 if it is to meet the Climate Change Act. Even if more efficient planes could cut that slightly, it’s a vast amount for one strip of tarmac.

Even so, debate about the new runway is just part of a bigger argument. It’s nearly inevitable that meeting the UK’s climate targets would only be possible with restrictions on flying, regardless of what happens at Heathrow. But the government has quietly proposed a new aviation strategy that suggests it isn’t prepared to do that.

Suspension of disbelief

It’s mathematically possible for the UK to build a third runway at Heathrow and still meet its emissions target – but you have to suspend your disbelief to imagine it actually happening and the government now appears to have given up on the fantasy.

When the Airports Commission recommended expanding Heathrow, it knew it had to say something about climate change. So it came up with an answer that ticked the climate box, but which was hard to take seriously. Its cunning plan was for Heathrow to expand and then for every other UK airport to be prevented from doing the same. Even that wasn’t enough – to meet its climate limits, the UK would still have to leave some of its airport capacity unused. The Commission’s idea for how to do that was an implausible plan to ramp up ticket prices by eye-watering amounts, with the aim of discouraging poorer people from flying.

These were never realistic suggestions and, in its proposed new strategy, the government has given up the pretence that they would happen. Instead, it has set out a plan where “consumers are the focus of the sector and… their expectations continue to be met”. Since the government expects demand “to increase significantly between now and 2050”, its prioritisation of consumers over the climate means it is planning for more airport capacity “beyond the additional runway” – whipping away the justification of Heathrow expansion before the bulldozers are even warmed up.

This is a plan for the UK to miss its climate targets. It would mean aviation expanding well beyond what the government’s climate advisors say is possible within emissions limits. The result would be other sectors having to cut their emissions more than they are already due to, something the advisors say may not be possible. The only hope may be electric planes, but these still seem far off – if they are possible at all – for anything other than the smallest of aircraft.

Public support

Alarmingly, the government might well get away with this inconsistency – because its position is what most people want. A new survey has shown there is little public appetite for restrictions on flying for the sake of the climate.

The poll, part of the respected British Social Attitudes survey, found the UK public are intensely relaxed about the climate costs of flying. Only 35% disagree that people should be allowed to travel by plane as much as they like, even if it harms the environment. That’s a fall from a peak of 49% saying the same in 2008. And, when it comes to their own travel, just 21% say they would be willing to fly less to reduce the impact of climate change.

It’s striking that the survey also found that the highest-ever proportion now understand climate change is real and caused by human activities. So the lack of worries about the impact of flying don’t seem to be a result of doubts about the reality of the problem.

Instead, the survey reflects the fact that most people realise climate change is a threat, but haven’t had to confront what it will take to deal with the problem. This isn’t a surprise when many climate campaigners have focused on the easy and uplifting emission-cutting changes, like the switch to renewable power and efficient appliances, that make our air cleaner or reduce household bills.

Confronting the problem

Those uplifting changes are still necessary and it’s right to inspire people with evidence of how cutting emissions can make their lives better, but we can’t keep putting off the unwelcome conversations. The longer we do so, the harder it will be to win support for the difficult measures that will be needed.

As I argue in my book, The Climate Majority, flying isn’t the only one of these unwelcome issues, but it may be the first that countries like the UK will have to confront. Decisions that the government makes in the next few years could leave the UK with expensive infrastructure that could put the climate target out of reach.

The new aviation strategy reflects the obvious – but previously denied – fact that a new Heathrow runway would make it much harder to limit emissions. Yet public opinion is moving away from being willing to deal with the problem, just when wide support is most needed.

It’s possible that a new runway at Heathrow will be stopped by local protests that have little to do with climate change. But, whatever happens with that strip of tarmac, the UK’s climate target will be in trouble unless more people realise their desire to stop global warming is in conflict with the government’s plans – and the popular wish – for ever more flights.

The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism is published by New Internationalist.

 

Hinkley Point and grammar schools show May’s electoral priorities – and why she could have a problem with airport expansion

Posted in Climate Sock, Politics, Transport on September 18th, 2016 by Leo – Comments Off on Hinkley Point and grammar schools show May’s electoral priorities – and why she could have a problem with airport expansion

Approval of Hinkley Point and plans for more secondary moderns might seem unrelated – but they have a shared politics and point towards a decision in favour of expanding either Heathrow or Gatwick.

Hinkley and selective education are both unpopular with the left and with most experts. Increasing the number of secondary moderns is so evidently bad for most children that even Corbyn could take May apart on it. And although the debate about Hinkley Point’s merits is more disputed, in both cases the government will face a long battle to achieve what it’s promised.

But the political appeal for Theresa May is clear.

Her message is that this is a government that will act decisively to promote jobs and skills. Grammar schools and Hinkley convey this effectively to one of May’s key target audiences.

In YouGov’s poll from before the secondary moderns announcement, the only groups of which a majority supported new grammars were 2015 Tory voters and Ukip voters, and the over 65s. The polls on Hinkley are less useful but this recent Opinium poll found that the same three groups are the strongest supporters of new nuclear power stations.

This seems a clear sign that May’s top target in any early election wouldn’t be people who voted for Miliband last year and are now put off by Corbyn. She’d go for those who voted for Farage.

This makes electoral sense. There are 67 Labour-held seats where the combined 2015 Tory and Ukip vote was more than the Labour share. Flipping those to Tory would give a Blair-style landslide. (This is pre-boundary changes)

When it comes to airport expansion, public opinion is divided, but support seems to be strongest among the same groups who support Hinkley and grammar schools. This 2015 Populus poll found the over 65s to be the only age group in which a majority supports expansion.

If the government is prepared to force more schools to become secondary moderns – in the face of all evidence about their benefit – the fact that London airport expansion is supported by the same people makes it seem likely that the government will go ahead.

But there’s one problem that could transform the calculation.

Support for grammar schools is evenly spread across the country. Support for London airport expansion isn’t. While 52% of Londoners supported expansion in that Populus poll, among people in many other parts of the country, support is only 35-39%.

This won’t be a problem for the government so long as the decision is seen to only affect London and the South East. Many people outside those areas are indifferent – they see it as a question for London that doesn’t affect them.

But, as I found in my paper for the Campaign for Better Transport last month, building a new runway in London means airports in the rest of the country will be restricted in size. Ticket prices would go up for all flights across the country.

This is hardly mentioned in the debate. As long as it isn’t, London airport expansion will seem to most people to be a London issue – and it will make political sense for May’s government to use it to appeal to the same people who like grammar schools and nuclear power.

But of those 67 target seats, only nine are in London and the South East. If it were widely realised that London airport expansion would restrict growth in the rest of the country, the plans may be a lot less politically appealing than they seem.

 

Airport expansion is either the end of carbon budgets or the end of cheap flights

Posted in Climate Sock, Transport on August 8th, 2016 by Leo – 1 Comment

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.

 

Heathrow expansion, climate change and virtue signalling

Posted in Climate Sock, Transport on October 11th, 2015 by Leo – Comments Off on Heathrow expansion, climate change and virtue signalling

“Climate change is one of the most serious threats facing the world today… It is in our national interest to act and ensure others act with us”

David Cameron is the only party leader who signed that pledge in February still in his job, but both Clegg and Miliband’s successors have echoed the sentiment and there’s apparent cross-party consensus that climate change is a serious problem that requires action.

But while that consensus is a great advance on what came before and produced the Climate Change Act, it masks the reality that political commitment to climate change is weaker than it now needs to be.

For a politician or commentator, saying you want strong action on climate change has become a form of virtue signalling: showing off your supposed commitment to tackling a future, widely-recognised and scientifically-backed worldwide threat that will most hit the poorest and future generations (who generally aren’t your electorate) – all without needing to make any difficult decisions.

You might think I’m having a pop at the government here, and in part I am. Despite Cameron’s February pledge and the election manifesto, which supported the Climate Change Act, the first few months of this government have produced a string of cuts and reversals that look set to undermine efforts to reduce emissions. At the same time, the government has maintained an official commitment to meeting our climate targets.

That’s become well known and a target of campaigners’ anger. But what worries me just as much is the less obvious loss of seriousness about climate change among the kind of people who had previously been its strong allies.

This has become clear with the approaching decision on airport expansion. As I’ve argued, expanding our airport capacity would mean either hugely ramping up ticket prices to cut demand and meet our climate targets or keeping prices constant and failing to meet our targets. Since it would be obviously stupid to build a huge new runway and then direct policy to make sure that new capacity isn’t used, it’s pretty much inevitable that building the runway would mean we don’t achieve our targets.

This is the first really hard climate change decision a UK government has ever had to make – and it’s exposing the thinness of many people’s supposed commitment to tackling the problem.

If it weren’t for the climate problem, I would be tempted to back the runway. It’s true there are some other good arguments against expansion, like whether we really need more capacity, and the effect on local air and noise pollution (so maybe build at Gatwick instead). But clever people say it would produce jobs, make the UK more competitive and bring affordable holidays in reach of more low-income people.

But, we do have that climate problem and I haven’t seen anyone offer a serious way of reconciling expansion and our targets. The Davies Commission’s proposal obviously wouldn’t work, so in reality expansion means giving up a serious expectation that we will meet our target (you might hope for a technological breakthrough, but bear in mind the Davies Commission already relies on this with its implausible ticket-hiking plan, so you would need an even bigger deus ex machina and no serious analyst is predicting this).

And yet, many people who signal their climate virtue also support airport expansion.

A quick search of comments by Labour MPs produces the following:

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Why Labour’s modernisers should back Corbyn’s resistance to Heathrow expansion

Posted in Climate Sock, Transport on September 19th, 2015 by Leo – Comments Off on Why Labour’s modernisers should back Corbyn’s resistance to Heathrow expansion

This was originally published on Labour List.

It’s now clear that Labour will oppose Heathrow expansion. Not only did Jeremy Corbyn say during the leadership campaign that he’d vote against it, but his Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, is a vocal opponent.

Many Labour modernisers will be alarmed by this stance. In the eyes of many, one of the top reasons for defeat in May was that the party wasn’t trusted with the economy. To win again, Labour must show it won’t undermine growth.

So during the campaign, the leadership candidates most focused on winning votes from the centre presented themselves as able to regain economic credibility. When the Davies Commission recommended expanding Heathrow, Liz Kendall immediately responded by calling for a decision to build the new runway, which quickly became Party policy.

The political calculation was obvious. While the Tories were split and dithering, supporting Heathrow expansion would allow Labour to outflank them as the party of job creation.

The modernisers presumably considered arguments against expansion, particularly from residents who would be hit by worse air pollution and noise. This seems to be Corbyn’s main objection to it. But it’s understandable that candidates aspiring to lead the country prioritised what they saw as a national benefit over a local cost.

What their calculation may not have taken into account – understandably as it was glossed over in the Davies Report and barely featured in the coverage – was whether expansion can be reconciled with the UK’s climate change targets. This is where what may seem like good politics turns out to be not only bad policy but also bad politics.

The UK is committed under the Climate Change Act to cutting its greenhouse gas emissions by 80% of 1990 levels by 2050. So far we’ve done a reasonable job: we’re broadly on course and last year emissions fell by 6%.

Plans for meeting the 2050 target are already generous to aviation. While emissions from the rest of the economy are due to be cut by 85% on 1990 levels, aviation’s emissions are allowed to grow by around 120%. All that emissions growth was already used from 1990 to 2005, but the plans allow for an additional increase in passenger numbers of 60%: a leniency that assumes overall aviation emissions can be kept constant as emissions per passenger are reduced with future technological fixes. This expansion will likely be overwhelmingly for leisure travel: business travel represents less than a sixth of international travel in UK airports and has been falling in both relative and absolute terms.

But, unless aviation growth is limited, we will miss even this generous target. According to the Department for Transport, emissions will be well above their target even without airport expansion; a new Heathrow runway puts us still further off course.

When pushed, the Davies Commission offered an eye-watering solution to meet the target. They suggested reducing demand for flights by greatly increasing the price of carbon (as well as other difficult measures). Even if planes become about a third more efficient, the Commission’s case for expanding Heathrow assumes that a London-New York return ticket should cost around £325 more than now (the range of prices they suggest vary hugely, with some much higher). The Commission’s scenario is based on optimistic assumptions about future technology, so we’d need even greater, and less realistic, breakthroughs to resolve this dilemma.

So the proposal appears to be to expand Heathrow but to avoid using all of the new capacity by making flying so much more expensive it’ll again become available only to richer travellers.

This means it’s impossible to be in favour of more than two out of three of: building and fully using a new runway, keeping flights affordable for poorer travellers, and meeting our climate targets. If you agree the UK should meet those targets and that foreign holidays should be available to poorer families, the policy argument for expanding Heathrow is challenging. Expanding an airport but not using the capacity is so obviously a waste of money I can only assume the Commission doesn’t really think we should meet our climate targets.

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Heathrow or Gatwick expansion makes it much harder to meet our climate targets: so why no Option 3?

Posted in Climate Sock, London, Transport on June 6th, 2015 by Leo – Comments Off on Heathrow or Gatwick expansion makes it much harder to meet our climate targets: so why no Option 3?

The debate about UK airport expansion has been framed brilliantly by the pro-expansion side, at the expense of climate change.

The Airports Commission is expected to publish its report on London airport expansion this month – recommending a new runway at either Gatwick or Heathrow.

As things stand, we can only meet the UK’s 80% emissions reduction target if our aviation emissions in 2050 are no higher than they were in 2005.

This could allow for a 60% increase in flights, balanced by improved efficiency and use of sustainable biofuels. That assumes a cut of 85% in emissions from other sectors: the Committee on Climate Change have said they don’t think it’s plausible to count on even greater cuts to balance higher emissions from aviation.

Yet, the Department for Transport’s UK Aviation Forecasts predicts that, even without airport expansion, passenger numbers will more than double by 2050 and emissions will hugely overshoot the target (about 40% above the 2010 level).

It suggests that, if it isn’t constrained by airport capacity, UK aviation would be about 10% greater (I was surprised by how little difference there is).

So even without expansion we appear to have a problem with reconciling flying and meeting our climate targets. Expanding our airports will make this problem even harder. And if we do expand in the South East, there will be even less chance to expand elsewhere – hardly boding well for a rebalancing of the economy.

But that challenge is barely being talked about in the debate about airport expansion.

This, I think, is down to how well the debate’s been framed by those who want expansion: the question is whether we should expand at Heathrow or at Gatwick, not whether there should be an option 3 of not expanding at all.

I’m reminded of Damian McBride’s observation that the up-side for Labour of the Blair-Brown battles was that the media focused on those and ignored the Tories.

The entire focus of airport expansion coverage (and polling) is now on the question of where, not whether.

Similarly, the way the environment is discussed has been framed in a way that helps the pro-airport side.

Gatwick’s marketing talks extensively about the environment, by which they mean local noise and air pollution.

Climate change is typically treated by the media as an environmental (not an economic or social) issue, so Gatwick’s framing of the environmental impacts as local, rather than global, means that climate change is pushed off the table: there’s only so much time the media can devote to a ‘niche’ issue like the environment.

Together, this means the debate’s been framed as a battle between Heathrow and Gatwick, while the environment is a metric by which their local impacts can be judged.

Probably as a result of this, there’s been little recent polling on whether or not people actually want a new runway.

The latest I can find is from Opinium’s poll for Carbon Brief in January 2013, which had 39% supporting an increase in flights from the South East, 16% opposing, and 45% in the middle or don’t know. While it doesn’t point to much opposition, there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of enthusiasm either.

It suggests an effective opposition movement could do a lot to shift public opinion: much as the XL Pipeline protests have in the US. But they’d need to start with the recognition that their side of the debate is currently not recognised as valid.

Nevertheless, there’s an enormous challenge of expanding airport capacity while meeting our legal climate targets, and public opinion appears still to be largely undecided about expansion. Given that, it’s strange that the debate has been so limited.

Flying and taxes

Posted in Bad polling, Climate Sock, Transport on January 24th, 2010 by leo – Comments Off on Flying and taxes

A few months ago, the pro-aviation campaign group, Flying Matters, released results from their poll of voters in marginal seats, showing strong opposition to the then-forthcoming increase in Airline Passenger Duty.

An industry poll showing that people don’t like taxes imposed on their industry isn’t particularly interesting. It’s not unusual either: aviation is an area where almost all the polling seems to be pretty unconvincing, with questionnaires structured to lead respondents to answer a particular way. In fact, I’m yet to see only one interesting and credible finding in the various reported polls.

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