Two Questions for the New Minister of State for Transport

10/10/2013 12:31 BST | Updated 10/12/2013 10:12 GMT

Co-authored by James Lees, Research and Communications Officer, Aviation Environment Federation and tweets at

One of the most difficult tasks for the newly appointed Minister of State for Transport, Susan Kramer, will be juggling the demands of the aviation industry for unlimited growth against the UK's commitment to reduce emissions.

This week, the Airports Commission chairman, Howard Davies, said UK aviation could expand by 60% to the year 2050 without compromising the country's emissions targets. It is claimed that this capacity increase is essential to accommodate more long haul passengers but it still falls way short of the government's projected demand forecasts of 150% by 2050. Recognising that the climate challenge spells the end of catering to infinite demand is welcome, but industry makes the argument that the carbon markets can play a role in neutralising the emissions from the additional passenger numbers. This ignores the fact that the UK cannot regulate these emissions alone.

The EU's preferred policy option of making airlines pay for their emissions through the Emissions Trading System was hamstrung by global opposition last week. And the UN body responsible for aviation, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) is now approaching its seventeenth year of talk, without being any closer to a global agreement. So question number one for the new Minister is how the UK proposes to reduce these increased aviation emissions?

Even if ICAO stops talking and takes action, it won't be for another seven years (and the mooted 2020 start date is already being challenged). Moreover the preferred measure seems to be offsets with all the question marks over effectiveness that they bring. Whatever ICAO - or indeed the EU or the UK does, the science shows that aviation's climate impact will continue to grow well into the future and immediate reductions in emissions are essential - prompting US environmentalists to fly a light plane over the ICAO building last week towing the banner, 'you can't spell procrastination without I C A O'.


Photo ©Guy Lavigueur

Amid all the dissension last week at the ICAO Assembly, ICAO was crystal clear in agreeing that if they're not doing their job no-one else should either. The Assembly resolution states that no country or region should try to tackle aviation's 5% contribution to global warming without the explicit prior permission of all countries whose airlines are involved - a logistical nightmare effectively making any regional action like the EU's impossible.

Though ICAO's decision on regional measures is not legally binding on the EU, it is a powerful political signal, and how the EU will react is a key question. What seems clear is that the political feasibility of the EU regulating all the carbon from its intercontinental flights, as was the original plan, is now severely constrained and must wait the tortuous process in ICAO. Since emissions from long-haul intercontinental flights make up 70% of the UK's aviation emissions, the UK Government's own hands to regulate these emissions are similarly tied. Question number two for Baroness Kramer is whether the UK believes ICAO's new restrictions on regional action are justified, And how long should the UK wait for effective global action deal which looks just as uncertain now as ever?

Without answers to these questions it's difficult to see how the UK can reconcile unconstrained growth in the long-haul sector with the need to meet emissions reduction targets.