UK Government’s climate adviser tells parliamentary committee that personal flights may have to be rationed

UK Government’s climate adviser tells parliamentary committee that personal flights may have to be rationed | Lord Turner, Committee on Climate Change, Environmental Audit Committee, NASA, James Hansen, Defra

Coal not aviation is the number one danger, says climatologist Dr James Hansen (photo: NASA)

Tue 10 Feb 2009 – To lower pollution from the aviation industry, people should be given personal flight limits, Lord Turner, Chairman of the UK’s Committee on Climate Change, has told the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (EAC). Lord Turner’s committee was instrumental in persuading the UK Government to adopt tougher national targets on reducing carbon emissions and to include aviation in those targets. Meanwhile, leading US climate scientist Dr James Hansen has told The Observer that coal not aviation was the number one priority in the battle against climate change, although he has since retracted some of his comments to the UK newspaper.

 The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) is an independent body established under the Climate Change Act to advise the UK Government on setting carbon budgets, and to report to Parliament on the progress made in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It was the CCC that advised the Government that in order to slow down runaway global warming, a more radical 80% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 should be adopted, which is now the centrepiece of the recent climate change legislation.
Last month, the CCC was asked by the Government to conduct a review into how UK aviation emissions can be limited to below 2005 levels in 2050 and provide a report by December.
“Given the danger that unconstrained aviation emissions growth would make required reductions in other sectors impossibly large, it makes sense to establish an absolute cap on aviation emissions,” responded the CCC.
Lord Turner told the EAC that demand for air travel would have to be constrained, “with people not allowed to make as many journeys as they could in an unconstrained manner.” The restriction may need to become permanent, he said, if emissions reduction targets were to be met.
His suggestion was condemned by the Liberal Democrat transport spokesman Norman Baker. “There is an absolute need to recognize the serious climate change implications of aviation but Forties-style rationing is not the way forward,” he said.
However, Lord Turner also advised the EAC that in order to meet the overall national targets it was logical to cut emissions where it was easier and where there were alternatives. “If it is more feasible to reduce emissions by 95% in electricity generation and by 0% in aviation than 80% for both, it is a better deal for society to have 95 and 0,” he said.
Although not long in his position, Lord Turner is reported to have said he will step down as Chairman of the CCC since he is also Chairman of the Financial Services Authority (FSA). He was appointed to the part-time post at the FSA last September, just before the collapse of the UK’s banking sector. This has now proved a full-time activity as he is playing a major role in the rescue plans.
Although Lord Turner’s comments have been derided, he is not alone in his view that journeys by air should be rationed on environmental grounds. Opposition Conservative MP and Chairman of the EAC Tim Yeo also called two years ago for restrictions on domestic air travel within the UK.
Defra, the UK environment ministry, has mooted the concept of personal carbon allowances whereby individuals would buy credits along the lines of an emissions trading scheme. They would surrender their carbon credits upon the purchase of, for example, electricity, gas or transport. Those who need or want to emit more than their allowance would have to buy allowances from those who emit less. Over time, the overall emissions cap (and hence individual allocations) could be reduced in line with internationally or nationally adopted agreements, says the Defra website.
Meanwhile, campaigners seeking to block the expansion of London’s Heathrow Airport had hoped to enlist the support of renowned NASA climate scientist Dr James Hansen. Last year, he testified on behalf of protesters on trial over criminal damage caused during the occupation of a UK coal-fired power station. The accused were subsequently acquitted.
However, Dr Hansen told The Observer newspaper that he would not help protesters arrested for disrupting Heathrow. “I don’t think it is helpful to be trying to prevent air flight.”
He said cutbacks in new runways would be ineffective. “The number of runways you need for your airports depends on their traffic,” he said. “You don’t want to be so restrictive that you end up burning more fuel because planes are having to circle and wait to land because of lack of runway space.”
Efforts by activists were misplaced, he insisted. “You have to keep your eye on the ball and not waste your efforts. The number one enemy is coal and we should never forget that.”
Dr Hansen, whose warnings on climate change were ignored during the Bush administration, believes the world has only a few years to halt the rise of carbon emissions and has called on the new US administration to act decisively on climate change during the first term of the Obama presidency or put the planet at risk. He says major cuts in carbon emissions must be made worldwide.
Editor’s Update – Wed 11 Feb 2009:
My thanks to Sarah Clayton of environmental group AirportWatch who has pointed out that Dr Hansen has since retracted comments he made to The Observer. The following is taken from a text containing what he describes as an apology to environmentalists (which can also be found at
“I have relearned a basic lesson re interviews – which will have to be fewer and more guarded. I recall giving only one interview to UK media this year, but perhaps it was two. One resulting story was that I said the climate problem must be solved in four years – of course, what I meant to say was that we needed to start moving in a fundamentally different direction during President Obama’s first term. CO2 in the air will continue to increase in those four years – we are not going to take the vehicles off the roads or shut down commerce.
“I must have said something dumber in response to a question about air travel. Special apologies to people working in opposition to expansion of Heathrow Airport – I had no intention of damaging their case. All I intended to say was that aviation fuel is not a killer for the climate problem – at worst case we can use carbon-neutral biofuels (not current biofuels – there are ways to do biofuels right, for the fuel volume needed for global air traffic – ground transport will need a different energy source). When asked about the proposed added runway at Heathrow, I apparently said, in effect, that coal is the (climate) problem, not an added runway – in any case, what was reported angered a huge number of people, as indicated by my full e-mail inbox. I should have deferred questions on Heathrow to local experts – I am sure there are many good environmental reasons to oppose airport expansion. I am very sorry that I was not more guarded. You can be sure that in the future I will be more careful to avoid making comments that can be used against good causes.”



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