Environment

Sunak's government slammed for 'protecting' frequent flyers amid calls for a new green tax

The government should consider green taxes for frequent flyers, a committee of MPs has warned

Flying is terrible for the planet. Is the government doing enough? Credit: canva

The UK government should consider green taxes for frequent flyers, a committee of MPs has said – as campaigners slam “gimmicky” Conservative plans for aviation.

The Tories have promised to decarbonise flying by 2050. But with emissions set to reach 52 million tonnes by mic-century, their ‘jet zero’ strategy – which relies heavily on dodgy Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF) – isn’t on track.  

And the government may have to “alter course mid-flight”, the Energy Action Committee has found.

“Decarbonising the aviation industry has proved difficult; but it is a critical part of the UK’s pathway to net zero,” said EAC member and Conservative MP Jerome Mayhew.

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“The government needs to make sure that [aviation sector] ambition is translated into actual results.”

The EAC has called for the government to bring forward its review of jet zero plans, and develop policy proposals including reducing the cost of rail travel and a frequent flyer levy.

Such calls are “welcome” said Anna Hughes, founder of the Flight Free UK.

“We need to include demand reduction in any strategy for reducing emissions,” she said. “The Jet zero strategy is not good enough… the government must hear that from MPs, as well as from campaigners like us.”

How bad is flying for the planet and are Sustainable Aviation Fuels enough?

Aviation currently accounts for about 2% of the world’s global carbon emissions.

A return flight from London to San Francisco emits around 5.5 tonnes of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) per person – about half of the average Brits’ carbon footprint.

The government has promised ‘guilt free flying’ with the phase in of Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAFs), a type of jet fuel that is produced from ‘sustainable’ feedstocks and supposedly cuts a plane’s carbon emissions by around 80%.

SAFs “sound good” until you scrutinise them, Hughes explained. “It’s a gimmick,” she added.

Environmental NGOs have cast doubt on the “80%” emissions reduction statistic, which is based on the life-cycle of the fuel.

A crop is grown and absorbs carbon, offsetting the carbon that is produced when the same crop – transformed to fuel – is burnt in a jet engine.

However, the Aviation Environment Federation (AEF) suggests that this doesn’t always hold up.

The 80% figure is calculated based on the assumption that the crops would generate massive amounts of methane if they were left to decompose.

“The claimed ‘net’ reduction therefore relates to avoided emissions rather than to any actual reduction,” it said in 2021.

The UK government shouldn’t rely solely on SAF fuels and technology like carbon capture, Hughes added.

“We need to reduce the amount we fly. But of course, the government is so reluctant to tell people that.

“The aviation industry is like the tobacco industry. The tobacco industry was an incredibly powerful lobby that hid the effects of smoking and cancer for years. It’s the same with the fossil fuel industry. It’s costly for any party to challenge that.”

In a report late last year, the bipartisan EAC committee raised a number of concerns about the jet zero strategy, flagging the government’s failure to follow through with plans to include the UK’s international aviation emissions within domestic carbon budgets, a shortage of measures to cut passenger demand, and a lack of clear definition of what constitutes SAF.

Previously, the government has pledged not to instate “any new taxes” on flying.

“They say, we don’t want to take a hard working family’s annual holiday away from them,” Hughes said.

“But the real problem that they aren’t addressing is the people who fly all the time. Frequent flyers are being protected under the guise of protecting the less well-off in society.”

In the UK, around 15% of people take 70% of all flights and around 50% of people don’t fly each year.

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