Disagreement on environmental impacts of air transport is seriously undermining UK government policy
Hugh Raven, Commissioner, Sustainable Development Commission
Thu 28 Aug 2008 – Air travel has been heralded as one of the great successes of the modern world, creating wealth and employment, enabling worldwide economic and cultural interaction, and enriching our lives, writes Hugh Raven, Commissioner at the UK’s Sustainable Development Commission. We know there are environmental concerns, which may or may not be answered by future technological breakthroughs. But the economic imperative to expand is surely overwhelming. Or is it?
To thrash out some of the areas of conflict and common ground between groups across the spectrum, the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) and Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr) held meetings with the UK government, the aviation industry, academics, NGOs and citizens’ groups over a 12-month period. We published our findings in the joint report Breaking the holding pattern: a new approach to aviation policymaking in the UK.
While we expected to find disagreement, we were totally unprepared for the fundamental disputes we discovered over the basic facts and figures underpinning the UK government’s aviation strategy.
The basic facts on air travel – from the true economic benefits, to noise and air pollution, its contribution to climate change, the potential for technology to reduce impacts, and projections of future demand – were all widely contested.
For example, while some groups felt the economic benefits of aviation were unquestionable, others felt that the figures backing up its contribution to the British economy were actually quite elusive. The benefit to the UK of transit passengers – a key question when airports are developed as international hubs – was unclear. Incoming tourists bring economic benefits – but more holidaymakers leave the UK each year than arrive to spend their money there, raising questions over the net contribution of tourism. And while some argue that British holidaymakers are contributing to developing economies, others question the sustainability of locking these countries into dependency on tourism for their economic well-being.
The environmental impacts of air travel were equally contentious. There was little clarity over the exact contribution of air transport to climate change, as too little is known about the exact effects of aviation contrails. Similarly, the potential for technology to mitigate these impacts was disputed, with no consensus on how soon cleaner aircraft could be brought into use, and whether the potential gains would end up being used to justify more flights. Data on health impacts of noise and local air pollution was also widely disputed.
Different groups make widely divergent assumptions about likely outcomes of key UK and international policies to address aviation’s climate impacts - including the UK’s pioneering Climate Change Bill, the UK Aviation Duty Consultation, European Union Emissions Trading Scheme and the post-2012 Bali Roadmap. All are likely to have far-reaching implications for air travel. The SDC feels that it would be wrong to press ahead with decisions on aviation facilities in the UK without taking account of the outcomes.
Disputes about this most basic evidence pose a risk to government – of undermining public confidence, delaying decision-making, and compromising the efforts of government and industry to mitigate environmental impacts of aviation. They create rising distrust and reduce the authority of policy decisions. This is bad for government, the industry, and the public.
Now is the perfect opportunity to meet the challenge. Between now and 2011, the UK government is required to review its data and consult with the public as it develops its current aviation plans into a national policy statement on aviation. We recommend that it does so by convening a special commission, with an independent and respected chair, to compile an updated evidence base on the economic, social and environmental benefits and costs of UK aviation. The commission should seek maximum consensus amongst stakeholders, setting out policy options to stimulate a public consultation in the form of a national debate which truly takes on board stakeholders’ concerns.
Before further decisions are made, the findings and recommendations of the special commission and the consultation must be incorporated into the Air Transport White Paper.
We appreciate that this would not be the first consultation on the subject – indeed, we note that the UK government gathered 500,000 consultation responses before producing its Air Transport White Paper. However, of these, 95% were actually opposed to the government’s airport expansion proposals.
The government has made a firm commitment to listening to the concerns of its citizens. Now is its chance. We owe it to both citizens and industry to ensure that policy is based on the latest scientific and expert opinion, in an atmosphere of transparency, openness and honesty. This must be done do before pressing ahead with vital decisions that may lock us into future dependencies.
The Sustainable Development Commission is the UK government's independent advisory body on sustainability issues and reports directly to the Prime Minister, the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales and the First and Deputy First Ministers of Northern Ireland.