Public perceptions of aviation and the environment need to be turned around, says UK CAA chief
Theresa Villiers, UK Minister of State for Transport
Fri 25 Mar 2011 – Despite investment by airlines in new aircraft, the aviation sector has not been seen to take the environment issue sufficiently seriously so far, said Andrew Haines, the Chief Executive of the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). People want to fly more but they also want and need a safe, sustainable and enjoyable environment, and ways were needed to meet those twin demands, Haines told a London conference last week. He said the signals from UK politicians indicated that they will not support aviation growth unless industry creates the political and social appetite for it. Speaking at the same conference, UK transport minister Theresa Villiers said building new runways at London’s airports would have made it more difficult to meet climate change commitments and was too high a price in terms of the local environmental impact on surrounding communities.
Haines told delegates at the ‘Aviation in the 21st Century’ conference, organised by WEET, that reconciling growth and sustainability in aviation was a delicate balancing act that industry and regulators were having to perform.
“Currently aviation’s impact on the environment is relatively small,” he said. “But as other sectors decarbonise, proportionally our impact is going to grow, as aviation demand growth continues.”
He said with a forecast demand growth of 5% a year over the next five years, IATA’s fuel efficiency improvement goal of 1.5% a year to 2020 and carbon-neutral growth from 2020 was a significant challenge for the global industry.
“Even against our own target here in the UK – getting aviation emissions back down to 2005 levels by 2050 – we have a tough job ahead. The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) estimates for that to happen, demand growth must be limited to 60%. That’s against the 200% estimated in the absence of a carbon price and with unconstrained airport expansion.
“Then there’s noise pollution, which is a massive impediment to industry growth. It may not figure in international negotiations, but it plays big locally, and needs to be taken just as seriously. It’s a live issue across the South-East of the UK and in parts of Europe. So we need to find solutions that balance national need with the growing value local communities quite rightly place on tranquillity.”
He warned the industry that the environment was not a ‘fly-by-night’ issue. “If anything, it’s only going to grow in importance. So anyone in the industry – and I include those of us tasked with regulation – who doesn’t believe that this is the case is doing themselves and their customers no favours,” he added.
“Industry needs to make – and show – considerable effort. It isn’t obviously on the front foot. I know there’s some work underway, but it’s not clear to the consumer. The industry needs a credible line on the environment. And just as importantly, it needs to stick to it.”
Haines said that many in the aviation sector were hoping for the government to change its policy to something they like better. “It’s not going to happen.”
He added: “Our sense at the CAA is that aviation will have to pass through a set of environmental gateways before growth is allowed. In other words, aviation needs to stop sticking its collective head in the sand, and make the environment a top priority.”
He said the CAA would be pushing to publish more data that would allow passengers to see what impact their travel choices are having on the environment and informing the wider public about industry’s performance. In addition, work would continue on advising the Environment Agency on the EU ETS, helping airports reduce their impact on local communities and looking to play a part in promoting projects that use low-carbon technologies, like biofuels.
Theresa Villiers, whose ministerial brief includes aviation, said finding the best way for aviation to grow sustainably and successfully was “among the most important transport challenges we face in the modern world.”
She said to would be a mistake to see the issue as a binary choice between economic and environmental concerns, and the steps needed to decarbonise the economy could open up significant economic opportunities for the country.
Villiers revealed that an aviation policy scoping document would be published shortly that would ask strategic questions to inform the development of a sustainable framework for the future of UK aviation.
“We aim to conclude that process in 2013 after a wide ranging national debate and extensive engagement with industry, environmentalists, community groups and the full range of stakeholders,” she said.
“In recent years, the debate has become increasingly polarised. We want to try to build more of a consensus that recognises the crucial benefits that aviation brings to our society and our economy, but also acknowledges the need for restraint and for aviation to do more to address its environmental impacts. However, the process for producing that strategy over the next two years does not mean we stand still on our efforts to deliver important aviation policy goals.”
Villiers said action was needed at a European level on delivering the Single European Sky programme and the UK government was committed to including aviation in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS).
“We are also working through ICAO and the UNFCCC to push for international agreement on aviation emissions,” she added. “Progress has been slow in recent years but the first major ICAO conference in which this government took part saw a modest step forward. We are also actively contributing to technical work to set international CO2 standards for new aircraft types and to devise metrics for reporting aviation CO2 emissions. It may not grab headlines but this detailed work is pivotal if we are to make real progress at a global level.
“Technology is, of course, crucial to delivering our aviation policy goals and Britain can be at the forefront of that technological change. Over the horizon, I hope we can look forward to real advances on biofuels. Though I think it’s wise to admit there is no miracle technical solution round the corner on carbon or noise, technology may provide some of the answers.”
Villiers said the government’s proposed high-speed rail (HSR) route up the spine of the country, together with potential direct rail services to Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Cologne, along with current Eurostar routes to Brussels and Paris, could provide a viable rail alternative to around 140,000 flights per year.
However, Andrew Haines, himself a former rail industry chief executive, believed HSR would not be a “magic panacea”.
He said the cut-off point above which rail journeys cease to become an attractive alternative to flying was three-and-a-half to four hours. “Even with expanded HSR services to and from Europe, only a relatively few of the destinations currently offered at Heathrow would be within that timeframe. Add to that the fact that just 13% of UK aviation emissions result from journeys of less than 1,000 kilometres. The CCC showed that even with ‘speculative’ penetration, rail and high-speed rail could only reduce UK aviation demand by 8%.
Meanwhile, the UK government did not put up Air Passenger Duty (APD) in the Chancellor’s budget this week, as some had originally predicted, news which was grudgingly welcomed by IATA chief Giovanni Bisignani.
“I congratulate the Chancellor on his wise decision at this critical time of rising oil prices. He has begun to address the falling competitiveness of the UK aviation sector—at least by not making the APD situation worse. But much more needs to be done. Air passenger taxes in this island nation, which relies on air transport for connectivity, are still the highest in the world,” he said.
Bisignani urged the UK to commit to abandoning APD – “long touted as an environmental tax” – should aviation join the EU ETS in 2012. However, IATA repeated its opposition to the EU ETS as it was an inefficient environmental mechanism, contravened international agreements and undermined efforts for developing a global economic measures framework.
“We oppose misguided efforts on the EU ETS. But if it comes into place the UK APD must go—completely,” said Bisignani.
He said the UK collected more than £2 billion (US3.2bn) from APD, which was enough, he claimed, to offset the entire annual carbon footprint of the UK aviation sector four times over.
With an opposing view, Tim Johnson of environmental NGO Aviation Environment Federation (AEF) said an increase in APD was urgently needed. “This would be a step towards making the aviation industry pay for the environmental costs such as noise and CO2 emissions that it imposes and to make a fair contribution to the nation’s finances. The present tax is well short of what would be required to equalise aviation taxes with other sectors of the economy. For instance, if aviation fuel were taxed at the same rate as petrol, this would raise £10 billion ($16bn) per year.”
The two also had contrary views on the UK government’s decision to drop plans to switch APD from a per passenger to a ‘greener’ per plane levy, with Bisignani welcoming the move and Johnson expressing dissatisfaction.
“We are disappointed that the very public commitment made by the government to replace APD with an aircraft-based tax has been dropped without any consultation on how obstacles to its implementation could be overcome,” said Johnson. “This means that freight transport and transfer passengers will continue to escape paying any tax. We are calling on the government to find a way to close these loopholes.”
The shelving of the pledge, ostensibly on legal grounds, could be a precursor in the run-up to the introduction of the EU ETS to drop any lingering environmental pretence over APD in order to face down industry, and to some extent EU regulatory, argument about a double-counting of aviation CO2 emissions.