Even with improvements in fuel efficiency and the emergence of biofuels, demand for air travel will have to fall over the coming decades if the UK is to meet its target of ensuring emissions in 2050 do not exceed 2005 levels.
That is the stark conclusion of a new report to be released later today by the government's independent Committee on Climate Change (CCC), which warns that demand for air travel cannot rise by more than 60 per cent on current levels by 2050 if the UK is to stay within its carbon budgets and deliver an 80 per cent cut in economy-wide emissions by the same date. Under business as usual projections, demand for air travel is expected to increase three fold by the middle of the century.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) recently committed to halving greenhouse gas emissions from aviation by 2050, primarily through the development of improved engine and fuel technologies.
However, the CCC report predicts that fuel efficiency and operational improvements are likely to result in no more than a 30 per cent reduction in carbon emissions per seat per kilometre.
Similarly, it argues that sustainable biofuels are likely to account for just 10 per cent of aviation fuel use in 2050. It predicted that while the use of biofuels in aviation is likely to be technically and economically viable, concerns over land use, and uncertainties over algae-based biofuels and other demands on biomass feedstocks mean there is no reason as yet to be optimistic that biofuel can become the main form of aviation fuel by 2050.
As a result the Committee concluded that the number of flights will have to be curbed to deliver genuine cuts in emissions.
Chair of the Committee on Climate Change, Lord Turner, said that the committee's report should inform the government's aviation policy, which has faced severe criticism from environmentalists over the continuation of its airport expansion programme.
"Aviation policies should be consistent with this overall [60 per cent] limit on demand growth, unless and until more rapid technological progress than currently anticipated makes any greater increase compatible with the target," said Turner.
The committee will also outline various policy recommendations for reducing demand. They include a higher carbon price of £200 by 2050, the development of a high speed rail link to replace domestic flights, and the widespread adoption of videoconferencing technology. However, it warns that even a combination of all these policies will not be enough to hit the 60 per cent target, hinting that further policy measures will be required.
It avoids commenting specifically on the government's decision to expand Heathrow, but notes that expansion plans for airports "should be consistent with limiting passenger growth in 2050 to a maximum of 60 per cent above 2005 levels ".
Friends of the Earth's transport campaigner Richard Dyer said this was a clear indication that airport expansion should be put to a stop.
"The Government should tear up its Aviation White Paper, abandon plans to expand UK airports and develop an aviation policy that doesn't wreck the planet, " he said.
However, the report comes just a day after the House of Commons cross party transport committee of MPs yesterday backed the government's decision for a third runway at Heathrow.
"The Government is right to support the sensible development of air transport in the UK," it said in a new report, which also recommended that an additional runway be built at Gatwick instead of Stansted.
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