Why spend billions on a new runway and then tax us for using it?

The strange logic of the Davies Commission


Working my way through all the detailed research that the Davies Commission has produced on Climate Change, I suddenly realised how much was buried in the small print.

The biggest hidden assumption appears to be that in order for Heathrow or Gatwick to expand, fares will have to rise across the UK to the point where potential customers abandon the northern and regional airports in favour of their more efficient rivals in the south east.

The logic of the Davies Commission is simple. Aviation will soak up nearly all the UK allowance of climate change emissions by 2050 as transport and energy become carbon free (an optimistic view).

Without more runways in the south east, the regional airports will see a small expansion in flights, but we will be below our CO2 limit in 2050. If the go ahead is given to more runways around London then the only way to stop these airports filling up and exceeding our emissions cap will be to raise fares – a lot.

All this is tucked away in the small print of various appendices, and it bothered me so much that I wrote to the Davies Commission outlining a set of questions about the small print.

I’m told that it bothered Davies too and he has rewritten the climate change section to make it more convincing and to address the negative consequences for Scottish, Welsh and regional English airports.

An initial report by the Davies Commission contained a graph on the price of carbon needed to meet the emissions cap under different scenarios. This indicated that Carbon Trading would add over £360 on a tonne of Carbon (in 2008 prices). This adds around £150 to the cost of a return flight to Ibiza in southern Spain by 2050.

This is not as unlikely as it sounds. The latest government (Department for Transport, 2014) assumption is that the that the Real Traded Carbon Price for 2050 (if no new runways are built) ranges from £99 per tonne of CO2e to £297 per tonne.

So the government is predicting that the Ibiza return flight will go up by only around £100. Their current modelling for 2050 shows that the price will need to be at the high end in order to reduce emissions to within the carbon cap, even without expansion.

Obviously, with an expansion of capacity, there will be a need to introduce a much higher price. I have asked Davies whether his final report will have a calculation of how much prices will need to increase.

Of course, Davies may argue that his brief extends to 2030 when the new runways are built and that any necessary reduction in flights after that to meet our 2050 climate change targets is for a future generation of politicians to sort out.

This all raises two important question for the Davies Commission. First, why lay all that expensive tarmac, if your intention is to tax people in order to stop them using it?

Second, will future governments have the political will to levy these hefty taxes on flights, and be seen to punish the rest of the UK for the benefit of London and the South East?

Should expansion go ahead I would support taxing flights to stop global warming, because the future stability and prosperity of our planet has to come first.

But it makes far more sense to scrap expansion plans and to avoid some of those extra costs.

With the final report from the Davies Commission due in the next couple of weeks, I hope that the huge flaws in the logic of aviation expansion will be exposed.

It makes no sense for the planet, or for Londoners living with the more immediate consequences of noise and air pollution.

Darren Johnson is a Green Party member of the London Assembly. Follow him on Twitter

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