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We can keep Britain flying while tackling climate change

Britain is back in the cockpit. We’re rebounding from the pandemic slump, with over three times as many of us flying from UK airports last summer than in 2020 – an impressive 80 per cent of the pre-covid passenger numbers, but with more trips abroad, our flying habit is back as a contributor to carbon emissions.


Aviation is one of our significant environmental challenges. Prior to coronavirus, it was responsible for 7 per cent of the UK’s emissions. While the UK’s overall emissions have nearly halved in the past three decades, pollution from aviation has been increasing. As the number of cheap flights grew and more of us chose to fly, the sector’s carbon impact has grown – its emissions are 88 per cent higher today than they were in the 1990s.


If we’re going to reach net zero and safeguard the future of the industry, we need to quickly reduce aviation emissions and reverse the trend. We should not embark on this mission by restricting flying, however. Some propose creating new taxes aimed at reducing demand for business trips or family holidays. This approach would damage the economy, weaken trade links, and undermine cultural understanding.


This approach would also be a quick way to turn Britons off net zero. Few people are willing to give up flying for leisure – 9 per cent say they’re forgoing these flights already to tackle climate change, but 48 per cent are unwilling to do this. While 33 per cent are willing to pay extra fees to offset their flying emissions, only 3 per cent are currently taking up this option where it exists, and 30 per cent are unwilling.


It’s no surprise why people don’t want to turn back on flying. For millions of people, it offers an escape on holiday and an opportunity to explore new places. For others, it’s part of doing business. And for the half a million people employed by Britain’s aviation industry, people’s passion for jet-setting pays their bills. A world without planes would be smaller, separating families and businesses, with many communities deprived of a major employer locally.


But with technology and innovation, we can keep Britain flying while reducing our contribution to carbon emissions. Sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) can cut a flight’s emissions by around 70 per cent, and this year Virgin Atlantic will attempt the first-ever net zero emission transatlantic flight. If we can drive the development and deployment of cleaner fuels and planes rather than shut down the aviation sector, it’s entirely possible that we will fly to net zero.


With its Jet Zero Strategy, the government has opted for innovation over restrictions. However, we don’t yet have the right policies in place to foster these emerging technologies and industries. We also risk losing SAF factories to competing countries, with President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act offering enormous tax breaks for these businesses to move and grow in the USA. That’s why I’ve co-signed a manifesto with over 30 Conservative parliamentarians, providing ministers with policy ideas that would accelerate jet zero innovation.


Firstly, investors need the confidence to develop and produce SAF here in the UK, so we can quickly move away from polluting jet fuel. While five factories are planned here, the industry is only on track to meet half of the government’s target for at least 10 per cent of aviation fuel to be sustainable by 2030. We need to replicate the success of the Contracts for Difference scheme that scaled up our offshore wind industry and drove costs down over time. Creating a price support mechanism to give producers a guaranteed price will win much-needed investment for this sector, creating 6,500 jobs, adding £1 billion annually to the economy and cutting 3.6 million tonnes of carbon a year by 2035.


Secondly, the industry must pay for these schemes, not the taxpayer. We propose airlines fund the price support mechanism through a strengthened UK Emissions Trading Scheme, with free passes to pollute phased out to raise the money needed. This means that should the market price for sustainable fuel drop below the fixed price, any top-up subsidy is paid using airlines’ tax receipts. If more cash is needed, ministers could consider expanding existing flying taxes to cover ETS-exempt long-haul flights – not to discourage demand but to fund the industry’s future.


Finally, competition is needed to clean up domestic aviation, securing the future of small regional airports which connect every corner of Britain. Replicating the £1 million transatlantic competition for the first zero-emission flight would be an easy start. Requiring the already subsidised public service obligation routes, such as between Scottish islands and Glasgow, to be zero emission by 2030 will further spur innovation. If these ideas succeed, the government should consider a target for all domestic flights to be zero emission.


I urge ministers to consider these proposals. They’ll help secure the future of the UK’s aviation sector and put us on course to meet jet zero by 2050. Importantly, they’ll win public support for net zero by proving that ending our contribution to climate change needn’t mean sacrifice or lost economic growth. On the contrary, by backing British innovation, we can win investment, create better-paid jobs and keep flying without the climate impact.


First published by politics.co.uk. Henry Smith (Crawley) is a member of the Conservative Environment Network.

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