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The government must stop ignoring advice to reduce flying, warn climate experts

“We’re being asked to jump out of a window and told the aviation industry will catch us”, one expert told a committee of MPs.

Successive governments have ignored recommendations to reduce demand for flying, say climate experts. Image: Alan Wilson/Flickr

The government is refusing to accept that demand for flying must fall in order to meet critical climate targets, experts have warned. 

Giving evidence to MPs as part of an inquiry into net zero aviation and shipping, Leo Murray of climate charity Possible and Tim Johnson of the Aviation Environment Federation said the aviation industry’s current plans for decarbonisation are overly-reliant on unproven technology and optimistic assumptions. 

“We’re being asked to jump out of a window and told the aviation industry will catch us”, Murray said, adding that demand reduction is essential in case the “unicorn” technologies promised by the industry fail to materialise. 

The comments come as the government’s independent climate change advisers, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) publish their assessment of the UK’s progress on climate policy at COP26.

In the report, the advisers identified reducing demand for flights as a “gap” on the COP26 agenda, along with reducing car use and shifting people’s diets.

The CCC has continuously recommended the government put plans in place to reduce aviation demand in order to tackle the climate crisis.

Speaking to MPs in the Environmental Audit Committee session, Murray said that the CCC has been making this recommendation “since 2009”, but that “no governments have ever responded to the recommendation. 

“Nothing has happened in 12 years to make the Climate Change Committee change their mind about this,” he added.

Earlier in the session, MPs heard from a panel of experts from the aviation industry, who spoke positively of the potential for sustainable aviation fuels and hydrogen to power low-carbon flying.

“We’re on the cusp of the third revolution of aviation”, Hannah Tew of the Connected Places Catapult told MPs, speaking of “new classes of vehicle” which would allow for low- or no-emissions flight. 

Later in the session, however, Murray expressed doubts over the viability of sustainable aviation fuel. 

“I cannot find a single example of a target on sustainable aviation fuel being met in the 15 years I’ve been working on this,” he said. 

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“In 2009, The International Air Transport Association set a target of sourcing 10 per cent of their fuel from alternative sources by 2017. In 2018, the global industry was sourcing 0.002% from alternative sources.

“That’s about 10 minutes of global jet fuel consumption.”

Earlier this year, the government launched a “jet zero” consultation outlining its plans to decarbonise the aviation industry.

The document makes no reference to reducing demand for flying in the UK, in spite of repeated recommendations from the CCC to the contrary. 

In a Commons report released in September, the government said both it and the aviation industry “say that there are compelling economic arguments in favour of continued growth.”

Murray said that while the aviation industry is predicting demand growth of around 60 to 70 per cent, “the Climate Change Committee say we can’t cater to more than a 25 per cent increase”. 

He suggested a frequent flier levy as one way to tackle demand for flying, pointing out that 90 per cent of domestic flights in the UK are taken by just 2 per cent of the population.

Polling has shown that the UK public are broadly in favour of measures to constrain flight demand in order to tackle the climate crisis. 

In October, a survey of 21,000 Brits by WWF and thinktank Demos showed that 89 per cent of people support raising the costs of flights and introducing frequent flyer levies in order to tackle the issue. 

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