The White Paper, issued on 16 December, opens the door to a major expansion at many UK airports. The main focus is on airports in south-east England, which currently handle 60% of the UK's 200 million air passengers and are already close to capacity.
As expected, Transport Secretary Alistair Darling approved a second runway at Stansted which should be built by 2012. He has also bowed to lobbying from the airlines and airport operator BAA for a new runway at Heathrow, which will be delivered by 2015-20 provided air quality constraints can be overcome (see below). If not, the Government wants a second runway at Gatwick.
New runways will also be built at Birmingham and considered at Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Inverness. Moreover, runway extensions are favoured at Bristol, Liverpool, Newcastle, Teesside and Leeds - and terminal capacity will be increased at many other airports.
"Air travel is essential to the UK's economy and to our continued prosperity," Mr Darling said. "Half the population now flies at least once a year, and many fly far more often than that. Forecasts suggest demand could be two and a half times current levels by 2030. Air freight has doubled in the last 10 years; one third by value of all goods we export go by air."
Mr Darling maintained that he had taken a "balanced" approach in weighing economic benefits against environmental impacts. Indeed, the White Paper asserts that "simply building more and more capacity to meet potential demand would have major, and unacceptable, environmental impacts, and would not be a sustainable approach."
However, close reading of the White Paper suggests that this is exactly the approach that has been taken. An annex reveals that the planned increase in airport capacity would accommodate 470 million passengers by 2030. This figure is all but identical to the Department for Transport's mid-point forecast of 500 million - which makes no allowance for the impact of measures to internalise environmental costs.
Over the past year, a growing number of bodies - including the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (ENDS Report 341, pp 38-39 ), the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (ENDS Report 343, p 33 ) and the Institute of Public Policy Research - have warned that the growth in aviation threatens to wreck the Government's wider aspirations on climate change.
The White Paper restates the Government's commitment to putting the UK on a path to reducing CO2 emissions by 60% by 2050 (ENDS Report 338, pp 26-32 ). But it sidesteps the apparent conflict with aviation growth - noting merely that "international flights from the UK do not currently count in the national inventories of greenhouse gas emissions" under the Kyoto Protocol.
Indeed, the White Paper uses sleight of hand to play down the scale of the challenge. By 2030, it says, CO2 emissions from domestic flights and international departures will have levelled off at 16-18 million tonnes of carbon (mtC) - "about a quarter of the UK's total contribution to global warming by that date".
Moreover, the White Paper ignores the global warming impacts of aircrafts' emissions of nitrogen oxides and water vapour - which increase the total global warming effect by a factor of about three. This would bring aviation's impact in 2030 to about 50mtC. The Government's commitment under the energy White Paper implies that CO2 emissions from the rest of the UK economy should fall to 90-100mtC in 2030, and 65mtC by 2050.
Sir Tom Blundell, chairman of the RCEP, said the White Paper "reveals a serious fracture between the Government's policies on energy and aviation... The Government needs now to start moderating demand, both by increasing the cost of air transport to a fair and equitable level, and by encouraging affordable and environmentally more benign forms of transport."
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds pointed out that the DfT's air traffic forecasts assume a 1% per year fall in air fares - and that "simply holding prices constant by means of a charge would halve forecast demand for aviation."
However, the White Paper says that air fares appear to be falling at a faster rate of 2% per year as a result of the growth of "no frills" carriers and competitive pressures. This would cancel out the effect that any realistic economic instrument - including a notional doubling of air fuel costs - would have on reducing demand.
The White Paper offers no support for an extension of air passenger duty, which is "not the ideal measure" because of its "blunt" nature. The European Commission's work on developing an emissions charge barely gets a mention - and the global exemption of aviation fuel from taxation, although "anomalous", is seen as too difficult to change because of the need to renegotiate numerous international agreements.
Instead, the Government regards international emissions trading as the best solution. It promises to press for the development of an open trading scheme through the International Civil Aviation Organization - where progress to date has been painfully slow.
The only concrete proposal to address aviation's climate change impacts is a pledge to "press for the inclusion of intra-EU air services in the forthcoming EU emissions trading scheme" from 2008 "or as soon as possible thereafter". The move - advocated by airport operator BAA (ENDS Report 345, pp 48-49 ) - will be a priority for the UK Presidency of the EU in 2005.
The proposal faces serious problems for which the White Paper offers few solutions. Firstly, the Kyoto Protocol does not say who is responsible for emissions from international flights - posing a problem in allocating emission rights. Secondly, a large, if uncertain, part of aviation's impacts stem from emissions of NOx and water vapour - and there is a complex debate over whether these should be included in a trading scheme.
More fundamentally, the proposal would do nothing to curb the substantial proportion of emissions which are caused by flights to non-EU destinations.
The Government says emissions trading should be backed up by other measures such as improved air traffic control, voluntary targets and research and development. It recognises that the package "may not provide a total solution" - and says it will "continue to explore and discuss options for the use of other economic instruments", including unilateral or bilateral action "if progress towards agreements at international level proves too slow."
BAA and the airlines challenged the figure (ENDS Report 341, pp 38-39 ), leading the DfT to carry out further "sensitivity testing". This examined measures such as improved airport operations, economic incentives for cleaner aircraft and road charging at the airport. Even here, the DfT found that more than 5,200 people would still be exposed to pollution levels above the standard.
The White Paper says that "such exceedences would not be acceptable, and would be against the law." However, it is optimistic that a "concerted effort" by BAA and the airlines would offer "a substantially better prospect of avoiding exceedences" by 2015-2020, when improved technologies for aircraft and road vehicles may be more widely available.
Environmental groups welcomed the apparently tough line on air quality as one of the few bright spots in the White Paper. However, the Government may be hoping the problem will go away - not least because it is urging the European Commission to reconsider the costs and benefits of achieving the troublesome NO2 limit at all pollution "hot spots" (see p 47 ).