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Aviation and climate change

Aviation is the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK.


If aviation continues to grow at the current rate then by 2050 it will account for half of what even the government thinks is the most the UK should be emitting by then (under the 60% target originally proposed in the Climate Bill - see here ). In other words it would cancel out all the reductions that had been made up to then.

Curbing aviation growth will not prevent the destabilisation of global climate on its own - but there's no way we can get serious about tackling climate change until we get serious about tackling the runaway expansion in aviation. The current trend in the expansion of aviation is just not compatible with any realistic plan to prevent a climate catastrophe.

The government is planning for a near trebling of air passengers by 2030. To cope with these the government envisages up to 5 new runways being built with just about all existing runways working close to full capacity. This amounts to the biggest single programme of airport expansion ever seen in this country. The governments aviation policy is clearly on a collision course with its climate policy. We need to make sure that it is the former that is made to give way.

Aviation is currently given an unfair advantage over other forms of transport. It does not have to pay tax on its fuel (the way car drivers or train operators do) and for the most part does not pay VAT. So the aviation industry is mollycoddled with a hidden subsidy - which gives it an advantage over other less environmentally damaging forms of transport.

Taking an aircraft flight is when most people cause the greatest amount of emissions in the shortest amount of time - a one way economy flight, London to New York, emits more than half a tonne of of CO2. A return flight produces about the same climate-damaging effect as one year's motoring in an average UK car. This is taking into account the fact that emissions at altitude are nearly twice as damaging as the equivalent at ground level due to the 'radiative forcing' effect. Travelling by plane can emit anything between around half as much again, to four times more than travelling by train - and that is before we almost double the figure for the plane to take into account 'radiative forcing' (see in more detail here). Of course the very fact that aviation makes travel so much easier, and generally cheaper, means that more people travel more often and more climate-damaging emissions are produced. Most flights are not necessary in the way that heating one's house, or commuting to work is - they are part of an affluent lifestyle. Even cheap flights are taken disproportionately by the better off in society. Yet the people who will suffer worst and most immediately from climate change are those who will probably never get the chance to fly. So in other words the climate impacts of aviation represent a particularly striking way in which increasingly affluent, high-consumption lifestyles of the rich are having a negative effect on the poor.

Yet, if aviation was put on a level playing field with other forms of transport (for a start), and if other forms of transport were encouraged to replace short haul flights (the most carbon intensive per mile) then we would not need the kind of expansion in aviation envisaged by the government. Four fifths of all UK trips abroad are within Europe so many of these destinations could be reached by coach or train (and in a sleeper you needn't waste time, or get jet-lagged, either!). The government could be investing in more efficient, lower-emitting, surface transport instead of carbon-heavy aviation infrastructure.


The Campaign against Climate Change works with allies campaigning on aviation and environmental issues. These include Airport Watch, the Aviation Environment Federation, direct action group Plane Stupid and many local groups around the country.

Read more about previous campaign actions we have been involved in.


Find out more

Latest aviation news from AirportWatch

Why climate change should rule out any new runways in the UK Aviation Environment Federation, Feb 2013

Briefing on including aviation and shipping in the Climate Act AirportWatch, Nov 2012

Aviation and Climate Change Policy, AirportWatch, July 2011


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