Carry on flying, says government green plan

By Roger Harrabin
BBC Environment Analyst

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image source, Reuters

You can carry on flying, the government has told the British public, as it outlines its plan to reduce transport emissions to virtually zero by 2050.

Ministers say new technology will allow domestic flights to be almost emissions-free by 2040, and international aviation to be near zero-carbon by mid-century.

The policy has been ridiculed by environmentalists, who say the government is putting far too much faith in innovation.

They say demand for flying and driving must be curbed if the UK is to meet its ambitious climate targets.

The comments on aviation form part of the government’s Transport Decarbonisation Strategy, announced on Wednesday.

Transport is responsible for 27% of the UK's emissions, making it the single biggest emitting sector. Before the pandemic, flying made up about 7% of overall emissions.

image source, Alexander Shcherbak
image captionEmissions from flying are set to rise rapidly over the next two decades

The government has pledged the entire economy will be virtually zero-carbon by mid-century and is relying on new technology to play a significant role in achieving that, especially in aviation.

"It's not about stopping people doing things: it's about doing the same things differently," said Transport Secretary Grant Shapps.

"We will still fly on holiday, but in more efficient aircraft, using sustainable fuel. We will still drive, but increasingly in zero-emission cars."

He told the BBC's Today Programme that progress towards low-carbon flying was further advanced than people realised.

"We already have electric aircraft, going up in the air, and in fact the UK has become the first country in the world to have a hydrogen aircraft flying as well," he said.

"In addition to those advanced technologies, we also have things like sustainable aviation fuel."

Mr Shapps said the government planned to use sustainable fuel to fly home some participants in November's COP26 conference.

However, critics say reductions in emissions will not be achievable without reducing the amount we fly.

Green Party MP Caroline Lucas described the government's approach to aviation as "a flight of fantasy" that relied on technology that was still being developed.

"The government should not hoodwink us," she told the BBC.

'Speculative'

Mr Shapps said a bigger problem was road transport, which contributes 90% of transport-related carbon emissions in the UK, but that he felt progress was being made.

"I think we're reaching that tipping point. When you switch on the television or or see an internet ad, you'll see that electric cars and hybrid cars are almost exclusively the ones being advertised right now," he said.

image source, Getty Images

The government has already said that sales of new cars and vans powered solely by petrol or diesel will be banned in the UK from 2030.

The transport plan says all new lorries will be zero-carbon by 2040, running on batteries or hydrogen under a world-leading UK policy.

A recent study showed that trucks accounted for 2% of vehicles in the EU, but 22% of road transport emissions.

The Road Haulage Association (RHA) said the government's proposals on lorries were speculative, unrealistic and potentially damaging to business.

"These alternative HGVs don't yet exist - we don't know when they will and what they will cost," said RHA chief executive Richard Burnett.

"For many haulage companies, there are fears around cost of new vehicles and a collapse in resale value of existing lorries. The problem is even worse for coaches, which are more expensive to buy and have longer lifecycles."

'Active travel'

The government's transport decarbonisation plan also says:

  • Vehicles will become more efficient, under a new regulatory framework for manufacturers
  • Smart charging for electric cars will enable drivers to top up when cheap renewable energy is available
  • The government's fleet of cars and vans will be all-electric by 2027
  • Support for "active travel", that is walking and cycling, will increase
  • The rail network should be net zero by 2050.

However, critics said the plans did not go far enough.

Kerry McCarthy MP, Labour’s shadow transport minister, said: “This plan has been a long time coming, but it was barely worth the wait.

"The government is still stalling when it comes to the tough decisions needed," she added, citing the rise in rail fares and the cut in plug-in car grants.

“At a time when we should be showing global leadership and pressing ahead with this agenda, it's clear ministers still have a long way to go.”

The Green Party's Ms Lucas said that it was "a missed opportunity to really rethink how we organise how we travel".

Green groups said problem areas remained such as:

  • Building roads and HS2, which add emissions from making tarmac and concrete
  • Allowing the cost of driving to fall and the cost of rail to rise
  • Permitting car-dependent housing developments
  • The boom in large SUVs.

Road pricing

The government has been discussing a proposal to work with employers on “Commute Zero” - a project that could encourage more lift-sharing and working from home.

Ministers have also agreed that the whole central government fleet of 40,000 cars and vans should be fully zero-emission by 2027.

However, the Treasury will face difficult choices, as revenue streams shift as a result of the zero-carbon strategy.

image source, Getty Images
image caption"Active travel" which has risen in popularity during the pandemic will be encouraged

Currently, the Treasury receives more than £30bn a year from fuel taxes on conventional cars.

One alternative could be a pay-as-you-drive tax, but a government spokeswoman told BBC News there were no plans at present to introduce road pricing.

She also said there were no plans for a frequent flyer levy.

Where transport policy is devolved, the plan applies just to England only. Where policy is reserved, this will apply to the UK as a whole and the UK government will consult with the UK nations.

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