The aviation sector has been hit hard by the Covid-19 crisis. But its huge environmental impacts mean we should take the opportunity to carry out major reforms, argues Prof John Whitelegg, Liverpool John Moores University, in the second of two blogs on transport issues.
Responsible Science blog (5th in the Covid-19 series), 29 June 2020
Fuelling climate change
There has been very little sign that the aviation sector will deliver a proportionate contribution to the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions that is required if the UK is to achieve its target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050. The government’s own advisors – the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) – summarised the situation this way last year:
“Aviation emissions in the UK have more than doubled since 1990, while emissions for the economy as a whole have fallen by around 40%. Achieving aviation emissions at or below 2005 levels in 2050 will require contributions from all parts of the aviation sector, including from new technologies and aircraft design, improved air space management, airlines operation, and use of sustainable fuels. It will also require steps to limit growth in demand. In the absence of a zero-carbon plane, demand cannot continue to grow unfettered over the long-term.” 
Aviation internationally has been on a strong growth trajectory supported by national governments and large subsidies. For example, a 2007 study estimated that total transport subsidies within EU countries amounted to 270-295 billion euros per year. Of this total, road transport accounted for 125 billion euros, but support for aviation totalled 27-35 billion euros. 
Emissions from international aviation (like shipping) are not included within UK carbon budgets under the Climate Change Act. Flying is exempt from fuel duty and VAT on tickets. The Aviation Environment Federation (AEF) estimates that if the aviation sector paid the same level of duty and VAT on its fuel as motorists currently do on theirs, tax revenue would increase to over £11 billion a year compared to the £3.8 billion that Air Passenger Duty raises today. 
The special treatment of aviation has recently received another boost. In response to the huge decline in flying as a result of the Covid-19 crisis, government-backed loans in the UK have been extended with no environmental or climate change conditions to British Airways (£300 million), EasyJet (£600 million) and Ryanair (£630 million). 
The CCC confirms the failure of aviation to play a full part in delivering Britain’s climate targets: “we still expect the sector to emit more than any other in 2050.” 
Meanwhile, the European Union has published its findings on the implications for carbon emissions of the dominant growth ideology in the aviation sector.  Before the Covid-19 pandemic struck, global annual international aviation emissions in 2020 were on course to be around 70% higher than in 2005. Especially disturbing were forecasts that, in the absence of additional measures, these emissions could grow by a further 300% by 2050.
Other environmental pollution
Aviation is also a significant contributor to air pollution and noise pollution.
Recent research suggests that, globally, aviation emissions could cause 16,000 premature deaths per year because of exposure to particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 μm or less (PM2.5). Of these, 3,700 premature deaths are estimated to occur in Europe. 
Noise exposure is associated with issues such as sleep disturbance, annoyance, nervousness and increased blood pressure, as well as with clinical symptoms such as hypertension, cardiovascular diseases and cognitive impairment in children. A 10-20% higher risk of stroke, heart and circulatory disease in the areas most exposed to aircraft noise was identified through a survey of 3.6 million residents living near Heathrow Airport. 
The Covid-19 crisis – which, at its peak, led to a drop in international flights by 80% across the world  – is pushing many people to reconsider their flying habits. This is potentially very significant. Back in 1995, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution concluded:
“An unquestioning attitude towards future growth in air travel, and an acceptance that the projected demand for additional facilities and services must be met, are incompatible with the aim of sustainable development, just as acceptance that there will be a continuing growth in demand for energy would be incompatible….the demand for air transport might not be growing at the present rate if airlines and their customers had to face the costs of the damage they are causing to the environment.” 
25 years later national governments and international aviation organisations have still not adopted this conclusion as a central principle of planning for the future of flying – but they could as part of ‘green recovery’ plans. If we are serious about tackling the climate emergency, this means reducing carbon emissions faster than current CCC recommendations.  It also means there are a number of aviation policy interventions that should be put in place now – including the following. 
- The full internalisation of external costs.
- A frequent flyer levy to deal specifically with implementing the ‘polluter pays’ principle in a fair and proportionate way. The 15% of the UK population who fly frequently are responsible for 70% of all of our flights, with the 1% most frequent flyers accounting for close to a fifth of all flights by English residents. 
- The adoption of World Health Organisation guidelines on noise levels that should not be exceeded, and the enforcement of these limit values around airports. This would imply a ban on night-time flights in the period 2300-0700.
- The requirement to reduce all air pollutant emissions from aircraft, airport activities and road traffic to and from the airport so that full conformity with European air quality guidelines and regulations is achieved.
- Subjecting air tickets to VAT and its equivalent in all EU member states and in the UK after 31st December 2020.
- The adoption of a clear strategy supported by appropriate fiscal instruments to shift all passenger journeys under 500kms in length from air to rail.
- The full incorporation of all aviation’s greenhouse gas emissions into national and EU strategies to reduce these emissions by at least the amount of reduction recommended by the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI). The SEI report evaluated a package of measures to reduce GHG from aviation including behavioural, fiscal, technological and constrained capacity. 
John Whitelegg is visiting professor of sustainable transport at Liverpool John Moores University.
- CCC (2019). The future of UK aviation: Letter from Lord Deben to Chris Grayling. 12 February. https://www.theccc.org.uk/publication/the-future-of-uk-aviation-letter-from-lord-deben-to-chris-grayling/
- European Environment Agency (2007) Size, structure and distribution of transport subsidy in Europe, Technical Report No3/2007
- AEF et al (2020). Briefing: Building back better for aviation. https://www.aef.org.uk/uploads/2020/06/Building-back-better-aviation-.docx.pdf
- P.264 of: CCC (2019). Net Zero: The UK's contribution to stopping global warming. https://www.theccc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Net-Zero-The-UKs-contribution-to-stopping-global-warming.pdf#page=264
- European Commission (2020). Reducing emissions from aviation. https://ec.europa.eu/clima/policies/transport/aviation_en
- European Environment Agency (2017). Aviation and Shipping: Impacts on Europe’s environment. TERM, 207, Report No 22/2017.
- Aislelabs (2020). How Airports Globally are Responding to Coronavirus. 4 May. https://www.aislelabs.com/blog/2020/03/27/how-airports-globally-are-responding-to-coronavirus-updated-frequently/
- Para 5.39 of: Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (1995). Transport and the Environment. 18th Report.
- Anderson K (2019). Hope from despair: transforming delusion into action on climate change. https://www.sgr.org.uk/resources/hope-despair-transforming-delusion-action-climate-change
- Chapter 12 (Aviation) of: Whitelegg, J (2016) Mobility: A new urban design and transport planning philosophy for a sustainable future. ISBN 13:978-1530227877.
- Whitelegg J, Haq G, Cambridge H, Vallack H (2010). Towards a Zero Carbon Vision for UK Transport. SEI project report. https://www.sei.org/publications/towards-zero-carbon-vision-uk-transport/
Also see other blogs in our Covid-19 series...
Envisioning a post-Covid-19 transport landscape: surface travel
Do we need an Office for Science Responsibility?
Covid-19: time for a paradigm shift?
Learning from the Covid-19 crisis