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UK Government's new aviation strategy is a plan for climate chaos

To meet its climate targets the UK must restrict flying – but the government is going backwards and the public are becoming less worried about aviation’s environmental cost.

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 (New Internationalist) is now available.

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