The airlines’ appearance before the committee, which is holding an inquiry into climate change and the Stern review, got off to a combative start. Asked four times for a response to previous comments by Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary that Sir Nicholas Stern is an "idiot economist", Roger Wiltshire of the British Air Transport Association each time refused before finally describing the Stern report as "very considered".
Mr Wiltshire disagreed with estimates from the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution that the combined global warming impact of all aircraft emissions, including nitrogen oxides, water vapour and condensation trails, is two to four times greater than that of carbon dioxide alone. "We do not accept that the science points to multiplying the carbon," he told the committee. "The nature of the impacts is so different that one cannot readily multiply." Radiated forcing, the method used for the last ten years to calculate the combined effect, is, he said, "a very inappropriate and mathematically incorrect way to do that."
He also made plain the airlines’ anger at the recent increase in air passenger duty (APD). The increase on 1 February, which returned APD to its 1997 levels, prompted the airlines to walk away from talks with the Environment Department (DEFRA) on a government-endorsed carbon offsets scheme for the sector.
"How possible would it be for airlines to promote offsetting when, after the pre-Budget report announcement, APD will be paying for far in excess of the carbon cost of that flight?" he asked.
He also claimed the revenue raised by the new APD rate will be excessive compared with the cost of buying carbon allowances under the EU emissions trading scheme. "One fifth of APD would be able to be offset in the sense of European permits at the current market price."
EasyJet planning director Andrew Barker argued the committee was painting a "bleak picture" when it said there is unlikely to be an alternative to the jet engine in the next 50 years. "The industry has reduced its emissions per passenger by 70% over the past 50 years, so if we look at 2050 it is likely that the technological curve will continue to allow us substantial efficiency gains," he told the committee.
He also drew attention to the fact that the Advisory Council for Aeronautics Research in Europe - a body comprising governments, the European Commission and industry - has goals to cut CO2 emissions from new aircraft by 50% and nitrogen oxides by 80% by 2020 from a 2000 baseline.
Pointing out that if aviation is included in the EUETS it will not happen for another five years, and allowances would be allocated on the basis of a 2004-06 baseline, the committee asked why the airlines do not set emissions targets now that could drive improvements during the interim. "You have a free ride up until 2012 and you are doing nothing," said committee chairman John McFall (Labour, West Dunbartonshire). "Why do you not come up with an initiative and have a tighter baseline?"
In response, British Airways senior environment manager Andy Kershaw produced the surprising argument that "the only purpose of a baseline is to operate within emissions trading."
The witnesses’ responses did not impress Mr McFall. "I get the feeling that you have been hauled to the table," he said. "You have shown no initiative yourselves."
The airlines also disputed there should be some form of tax to reduce emissions until the sector is brought under the EUETS. Using an argument that could be applied to any form of business taxation, EasyJet’s Andrew Barker said "the problem with any tax is that it takes money away from us to invest in new technology."