This year, the British government proudly unveiled an “ambitious” plan to make airports in England net zero by 2040. Only one problem: the target does not include the actual flights, which account for 95 per cent of airports’ emissions.
For Cait Hewitt, such announcements are “a deliberate strategy to comfort the flying public” into wrongly believing aviation is on the path to sustainability. Hewitt has spent 16 years at the UK campaign group the Aviation Environment Federation opposing airport expansions. She was part of efforts to block Heathrow’s third runway. But perhaps her most notable role has been “to have challenged some of the bullshit from the aviation industry”.
For many climate problems, we now have solutions. We can build wind and solar farms cheaply, drive electric cars and reforest the countryside. But air travel — which accounts for 7 per cent of UK emissions, not far beyond the entire electricity network’s 11 per cent — defies such simple fixes. Electric batteries are too heavy for even mid-distance flights. Hydrogen fuels and biofuels would require vast amounts of renewable energy and agricultural land respectively.
Undeterred, the industry wants growth. This month Gatwick set out plans for a second runway. Heathrow plans to resubmit its application for a third runway by the end of the year. Smaller airports are expanding too. In all, this would increase the UK’s aviation capacity by a quarter, or 97.4mn passengers a year, something climate analysts say is “incompatible” with the country hitting net zero by 2050. “It sometimes feels as though they’re all having a go [to expand] now, just in case climate policy catches up with them soon,” says Hewitt.
Yet she does not just argue that the environmental costs of airport expansion outweigh the economic benefits; she wants to challenge whether the economic benefits for the UK exist at all.
Airports and airlines like to suggest they are essential to growth. A new report, commissioned by the AEF and reviewed by the economist John Siraut, concluded there was little evidence for this in an economy such as the UK, which is already well connected and which has net tourist outflows. Instead, the economic case for aviation “appears to rely almost entirely on the presence of business air passengers”, the report said. But business travel was falling even before the pandemic: with the rise of video calls, it now accounts for just 6 per cent of UK flights.
“Even if your sole objective was to grow the UK economy and you didn’t care at all about the climate impacts of aviation, you might still want to look carefully about whether a new runway was the right infrastructure development for the UK right now,” says Hewitt.
Meanwhile, British politicians wonder how to reverse the decline of coastal towns such as Blackpool, without asking whether limiting cheap flights to Europe and beyond might be part of the solution.
Hewitt does see signs that “the era of aviation exceptionalism” — a sense that in the sector “the usual principles of climate policy don’t apply” — is over. The Dutch government has won a legal battle to cut the number of flights at Schiphol, the EU’s third largest airport, because of noise and air pollution. Schiphol is consulting on banning private jets and reversing plans for a new runway. The Climate Change Committee, the UK’s independent advisers on net zero, called last month for all airport expansion to be paused until there was a national strategy in place.
But Rishi Sunak’s government champions “guilt-free flying”: its so-called Jet Zero strategy is built on “ambitious” assumptions of future technology. Here Hewitt, mild-mannered, stretches to exasperation. “If you went to the doctor as a smoker, and said, ‘What shall I do?’ And the doctor said, ‘I think you should carry on with your 40-a-day habit, because I’m a very optimistic person, I believe in future there’s going to be some technology that will allow us to replace your lungs.’ Would you describe that person as ambitious or just completely reckless?”
The last time Hewitt travelled by plane was in 2010, shortly before the birth of her daughter. “People who fly regularly think of it as a very normal, common activity [but] about half of the population of the UK doesn’t take a flight at all in a year.”
While millions of British people take off to the Mediterranean this summer, Hewitt and her family will be going to the North Yorkshire coast. “It’s taken a while to say, ‘I’m going to Whitby’, without feeling I have to make an apology about it.”
Despite the rise of budget airlines, about 15 per cent of adults in the UK take 70 per cent of flights, according to 2014 data. Globally, “about half of all aviation emissions are generated by 1 per cent of the population”.
Hewitt sighs at the overhyping of new technologies. Dale Vince, the green energy entrepreneur, has announced that he is launching an electric airline, which will fly a 19-seater plane between Edinburgh and Southampton. But the technology is not yet available, so the planes will initially run on kerosene.
“People like the idea of electric planes. In the climate relevant timeframe, from now until 2050, you might be able to [use them for small distances], but probably not for anything longer.”
Hydrogen planes, backed by Airbus, have more potential. “I’m told that maybe I’ll be able to take my family to the south of France in a hydrogen-powered aircraft sometime in the 2030s. But one, let’s see, and two, it’s going to be difficult to get hold of enough hydrogen using renewable electricity.”
In February, a review by the Royal Society concluded that “there is no single, clear, sustainable alternative to jet fuel able to support flying on a scale equivalent to present day use.” To meet the UK’s current aviation demand with green hydrogen would require about three times the country’s 2020 wind and solar electricity generation. To meet it with crops, like oilseed rape, would require more than half of the country’s agricultural land.
Other sources of sustainable aviation fuels, including waste, are scarce or flawed. “The government at the moment is trying to pass legislation to allow unrecyclable plastics to be reclassified as a sustainable energy source so they can be put in aviation fuel. You get this lump of plastic, that is made of oil, you do some kind of conversion on it, which is really energy intensive, to convert it into a liquid fuel, you then put it into an aircraft and re-release that CO₂ together with all the non-CO₂ warming effects that aviation has. I don’t think that you can call that even a carbon reduction, let alone a long-term sustainable solution.”
The “gold standard” is power-to-liquid fuel — made by combining CO₂ captured from the air with hydrogen produced using renewable electricity. That is “extremely energy intensive to produce, and very, very expensive. And there just isn’t any!”
Akbar Al Baker, chief executive of Qatar Airways, said in May that the industry would not meet its target of net zero emissions by 2050, adding: “Let us be realistic — there is not enough production of sustainable aviation fuel.”
Some countries have started to take action. France has banned domestic flights where a train journey would take less than two and a half hours. But while Hewitt calls this “interesting as a conversation starter”, she notes it does not deliver much in terms of emissions reductions, “because it’s the long-haul flights that are really the problem”.
She argues the best policies would be to cap airport expansion, while increasing the cost of flying. A frequent flyer levy is popular with the public, although would be harder to administer than the UK’s existing air passenger duty.
Hewitt says one problem is that the planning system is set up to essentially preclude climate considerations. The policy is that no airport expansion should be turned down on climate grounds unless it would have a material impact on the government’s ability to meet its carbon reduction targets. “For any individual application, that’s almost impossible to prove.”
Gatwick’s expansion plan states it is the government’s responsibility to ensure climate targets are met. Hewitt argues that, by the time the government’s Jet Zero strategy is shown as ineffective, Heathrow, Gatwick and other airports may have been given permission to expand and “it becomes very, very difficult to revoke that”.
Is opposing airport expansion just a variant of Nimbyism, which also stops new houses and renewable projects from being built? “I don’t think we’re Nimbies, because I’m not pushing airport expansion elsewhere.”
Hewitt, 44, acknowledges that people want to fly. But she wishes that holidays were less about “an impressive sounding destination, and more about experience and adventure, and having time with your family. For children, you can do lots of fun stuff without having to travel that far.”
Nonetheless, she admits she would like to be able to take her children to see more of the world. Her daughter, 12, already chafes at the sacrifice: “I never knew I had so many values until she started challenging every one of them! Not flying is just one on the list.”
In her time at the AEF, Hewitt has seen some limited progress. The Department of Transport’s team for aviation climate policy “didn’t exist when I started my job, and it does now”. From 2033, the UK will count international aviation emissions in its carbon budget.
But what Hewitt really longs for is a sense of emergency. “If I think back to those broadcasts that Boris Johnson used to make during the pandemic: ‘I need to level with you, we’re going to have to make some big sacrifices here, because we’ve got this big problem out there.’ There is just nothing like that coming across in the political language about climate change. It’s all very jolly stuff. You get one little hydrogen aircraft test trial, and it’s ‘Hooray, this shows that great British engineering will save the day, and we can all carry on flying.’”