Flying out of control

March 2003: Prime Minister Tony Blair highlights climate change as one of two key strategic challenges facing mankind. In an energy White Paper, he commits his Government to international leadership on the issue - embodied in a bold commitment to put the UK on a path to cutting its carbon dioxide emissions by 60% by 2050.

December 2003: Mr Blair's government issues another White Paper which will allow one key sector of the UK economy, aviation, to double its climate change impacts over the next 20 years. The increase will all but wipe out the total emissions reduction which the Government says it hopes to achieve by that date in all other sectors.

This wild contradiction at the heart of Government policy stems in large part from the Department for Transport's slide back to its old "predict and provide" ways, under the less than inspiring stewardship of Transport Secretary Alistair Darling. In the White Paper, the Department sidesteps the challenge posed by climate change - and also plays fast and loose with the figures to downplay aviation's contribution (see pp 42-43 ). The decision to separate the transport and environment briefs within Whitehall - and subsequently downgrade environment to a subsidiary of the agriculture department - now looks more ill-advised than ever.

Much of the blame must reside with Mr Blair, who presumably approved the new aviation policy with at least some appreciation of its environmental consequences. Perhaps the Prime Minister has been spending too much time with George Bush - his apparent refusal to countenance the prospect that climate change may require a different model of economic growth carries worrying echoes of entrenched views in the White House.

The aviation lobby has secured a huge expansion in airport capacity - with not a single concrete measure to offset the steep fall in fares which is fuelling the soaring demand for air travel. It has also won backing for a new runway at Heathrow provided it can comply with a troublesome EU air quality standard - which the Government is busy trying to water down (see p 47 ). Even the long-standing policy that aviation should internalise its environmental costs - arguably an insufficient response to the scale of the problem - is now merely an aim to be achieved "over time".

The only proposal to address the climate challenge is a promise to push for aviation to be included in international emissions trading schemes. However, there are few grounds for thinking that the UK, or the EU, will be able to make any more progress through the International Civil Aviation Organization than they have done over the past five years.

A more concrete promise is that the UK will push for the inclusion of flights between EU Member States - which represent only a fraction of the problem - in the EU emissions trading scheme from 2008.

The EU trading scheme is, on the face of it, a sound mechanism for the cost-effective control of greenhouse gas emissions. But it is also a hugely ambitious experiment which is being introduced on a highly demanding timetable (see pp 44-45 ). Tacking on aviation is a far from trivial exercise - not least because most of its impacts are uncertain, and not even covered by the Kyoto Protocol - and there are real concerns that doing so could over-burden the whole trading system.

Other industry sectors may also have a thing or two to say about the proposal. Businesses already face a difficult task in preparing carbon management strategies, given uncertainties about abatement costs in other sectors and the unknown impact of Kyoto project credits and Eastern European "hot air". Bringing aviation into the scheme under any meaningful cap would introduce a major new source of demand in the market - pushing up the carbon price in a way which could have a serious effect on the rest of industry.

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