Climate czar concedes that aviation CO2 emissions could form a quarter of total UK output by 2050
Lord Turner appears before the Transport Committee
Fri 8 May 2009 – The UK Government’s policies on aviation and climate change came under scrutiny this week at an evidence session of the House of Commons Transport Committee. Lord Adair Turner, Chairman of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), said that if aviation CO2 emissions remained flat they could make up a quarter of the UK’s total under the Government’s pledge to reduce overall CO2 emissions by 80 percent by 2050. At the same hearing, Lord Chris Smith, Chairman of the Environment Agency, said he did not believe passengers and airlines were paying enough to cover their environmental impact.
Lord Turner said that as part of the UK Government’s case for a third runway and increased capacity at Heathrow, aviation CO2 emissions should not exceed in 2050 what they were in 2005 – which was 37 million tonnes.
Since the Government had set a legally binding target of reducing overall UK CO2 emissions by 80% by 2050 compared to 2005, so that total UK CO2 emissions in 2050 were to be around 150 million tonnes, Lord Turner was asked whether the Government’s policy on aviation was credible given that around a quarter of all UK emissions could come from the industry by 2050.
“The answer is that it is not completely incredible because clearly it is sensible that within a certain allowable amount to focus our carbon budget on those areas where it is most expensive to find non-carbon ways forward,” he responded. “Therefore, we would strongly believe that the optimal path to an 80% cut by 2050 is likely to involve a more than an 80% cut in some sectors, for instance the electricity generating industry, which could be down 90% by 2050, whereas other sectors like aviation might have less than an 80% cut.”
He said the CCC would be refining its view during the course of this year on how, firstly, to hit the 80% target and also look at the ‘hard-to-do’ sectors like aviation, shipping and agriculture.
Lord Turner said the CCC had been asked by the Government to produce by December a detailed report specifically on aviation emissions. He said a wide range of issues would be looked at “in a model-intensive exercise”, including the transfer potential of traffic from air to high-speed rail, the implications of an increase in traffic at Heathrow as a result of additional capacity created by a third runway, the potential for emissions reductions from technology and by the use of sustainable biofuels. He added that a global view on aviation emissions would have to be accommodated, particularly on biofuels.
“One of the most important outputs of our report will be whether there are technological ways to achieve the targets or whether we will need to constrain demand either by refusing to build more capacity or by a pricing mechanism,” he told MPs on the Transport Committee.
Lord Turner accepted there was some basis for the argument that constraining airport capacity, such as at Heathrow, would lead to a displacement of hub traffic, and therefore emissions, to airports outside the UK. He said this issue would also be covered by the CCC and would be included in its December report.
Also appearing before the Transport Committee was Lord Chris Smith, Chairman of the Environmental Agency, the UK Government’s statutory adviser on environmental matters. The agency is tasked with monitoring local air quality issues in the UK and has recently been appointed as the Competent Authority to administer UK, and some foreign, aircraft operators joining the EU Emissions Trading Scheme.
“The aviation industry is now having to make its [environmental] case more clearly than it was before, and rightly so,” he said. “The question of the expansion of aviation into the future needs to be related to the climate change targets we have set as a country and I don’t think that has yet been done, either by the aviation industry or, indeed, by government.
“We need to make some serious decisions about how we want in 2050 the 20% of allowable carbon to be allocated. How much of it should be accounted for by aviation, how much by agriculture, how much by construction, how much by manufacturing and how much by shipping. All of these are carbon intensive activities. Even if we have decarbonized all of electricity production and shifted all ground transport to a non-carbon form, there will still be major demands for carbon from a variety of human activities. Precisely where aviation fits into that picture, and to what extent, seems to me to be the most important question that we need to decide if we’re looking at the long term future of the aviation industry.”
Lord Smith was sceptical as to whether the forecast by the aviation industry’s Sustainable Aviation initiative (see story) that aviation emissions would return to 2000 levels by 2050 could be achieved.
He also had reservations about the present ability of the EU ETS to deliver targets as the price of carbon was too low to effectively drive down emissions. He said it was also foolish and wrong to believe the country could export the responsibility for emissions by simply trading its way out of it. “It’s a tool that can be used but it’s not the only one.”
He told the MPs that he did not believe passengers and airlines were paying enough to cover the climate change and public health effects caused by carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions, as well as other local pollution impacts such as nitrogen dioxide emissions.
Lord Smith confirmed he had advised the Government against a third runway at Heathrow primarily because of the impact on local air quality, in particular because the agency considers acceptable levels of nitrogen dioxide, shortly to be covered by an EU directive, are already being breached in the airport’s vicinity. Increasing the number of aircraft by expanding the airport would present a serious danger, he maintained.
Given that the majority of nitrogen dioxide emissions around Heathrow were due to ground transport rather than aircraft, Lord Smith accepted the premise that overall levels could fall as ground transportation became less polluting over time but he didn’t believe this would be sufficient to make a positive impact by the time of the opening of the third runway and the significant increase in capacity.