This document explains how UK aviation travel is predicted to increase to pre-covid levels in the coming years, which will result in increases in carbon emissions. The authors consider the policy options available to the UK government to reduce aviation travel and to ensure carbon reduction targets can be achieved.
WHY DEMAND FOR AVIATION MUST BE CAPPED
Responding to the Paris Climate Agreement to limit warming to 1.5o C, the UK government passed into law in 2019 a commitment to deliver net zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050. The Climate Change Committee (CCC), which advises the government on climate policy, calculates that to meet this deadline aviation growth must be slowed so that passenger numbers do not exceed 25% above current levels. Aviation demand is forecast to grow well above this level and, while the international response to the Covid-19 pandemic has temporarily reduced departure levels, experience from previous shocks to the sector suggests demand will soon bounce back.
In the UK, 15% of people take 70% of all flights, while nearly 50% of the population do not fly at all in a given year. This is a hugely unequal division of the carbon budget for aviation (and a large share of the UK’s total carbon budget). A just transition to net zero emissions has to reduce aviation emissions in a way that accounts for this inequality. Any aviation policy used to apply a cap on flights across the population will reflect a judgment – either explicitly or implicitly – on how these flights should be distributed.
ANY CAP MUST ADDRESS EXISTING INEQUALITIES
The total amount of flights – the 25% cap – is determined by the carbon budget for aviation. In this sense the ‘size of the pie’ (available flights) is fixed, but through policy it is possible to affect who gets what slice, and at what price. There are two broad approaches to reducing passenger numbers: restricting aviation capacity – such as through regulation and reduced airport expansion, and restricting demand for flights – such as through taxation. Both approaches are likely to lead to price increases, either directly , or due to the price effects of demand exceeding capacity. But the distributional effects of different options are highly variable. Policies designed to help cap the growth in aviation passenger numbers face a difficult challenge in keeping to a carbon budget for the sector, while considering how access to this carbon budget is distributed across society. Just as there is a risk of too much air travel breaking the carbon budget, there is also a risk that the choice of policy design puts air travel out of reach for many.
A FREQUENT FLYER LEVY IS THE FAIREST WAY TO DO THIS
In 2015, a report by the New Economics Foundation for the ‘A Free Ride’ campaign proposed a frequent flyer levy (FFL) to achieve the combined aim of limiting aviation emissions while ensuring a more progressive distribution of flights. The FFL applies a charge, starting at zero for the first flight, but increasing for every subsequent flight taken within a year. It would replace the existing Air Passenger Duty (APD) – £13 for short haul and £78 for long haul in economy class – that currently applies to every passenger ticket. In 2018, a survey revealed that a FFL is the most popular option among a number proposals for reducing passenger numbers.
This report presents new modelling comparing the distributional effects of an illustrative FFL with an increase to APD and restrictions on airport capacity.