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Green Campaigners Criticise Cuts To Domestic Flight Duty As UK Makes Environmental Pledges

Passengers preparing to fly at an airport. Credit: Alamy.

4 min read

Rishi Sunak's decision to cut Air Passenger Duty (APD) on UK domestic flights to make tickets cheaper has been criticised by green campaigners for misjudging the scale of the climate crisis.

From 2023 the duty will be dropped from £13 to £6.50 for internal flights, which the Treasury estimates will make travel cheaper for around nine million passengers, and better connect the nations of the UK, particularly England to Northern Ireland. 

But the move has attracted criticism from environmental campaigners who believe the government should be incentivising low emissions transport such as rail travel rather than encouraging short-haul flights. 

From Sunday the UK will play host to the COP26 Conference in Glasgow, where Boris Johnson is expected to lead the way on getting major nations to reduce their carbon emissions to help avert a devastating climate catastrophe. 

"In the looming shadow of the climate emergency and with COP26 just days away, the decision to cut Air Passenger Duty on domestic flights is utterly wrong-headed," Paul Tuohy, Chief Executive of Campaign for Better Transport, said.

"Ours is not a large country: many of these journeys can be made in just a few hours by train with just one-seventh the carbon impact."

The Treasury has insistsed that move was broadly "carbon neutral" and won't have a dramatic impact on the environment.

While domestic duty will be slashed, passenger tax on ultra long haul flights – classed as journeys over 5,500 miles – will by £4 from £87 to £91 from 2023. Overall the changes to APD will see the Treasury lose £35 million in the first two years of the new rates being introduced. 

 Friends of the Earth’s head of policy, Mike Childs, said the cut to APG was astonishing and "flies in the face of the climate emergency". 

"The Chancellor should be making it cheaper for people to travel around the country by train, not carbon-guzzling planes," he added. 

The think tank Green Alliance UK noted that the move makes internal flights to Glasgow cheaper long-term, and that was not the right message for the government to send ahead of next week's climate summit. 

"A tax cut on domestic flights will almost certainly mean flying from London to Glasgow will be cheaper than getting the train," a spokesperson said on Twitter. "But, Rishi Sunak, don't expect COP26 delegates to thank you."

Green Party co-leader Adrian Ramsay warned that the Budget is taking the country's approach to greener travel "in the wrong direction”. 

"Did Rishi Sunak miss the memo about us being in a climate emergency?" Ramsay said. 

"Once again the Chancellor has shown that he simply does not understand the scale of what is required to tackle the climate crisis. In fact, by cutting air passenger duty and boasting about cheaper fuel for cars he is taking us in the wrong direction."

Sunak believed the change was justified because most emissions were generated by long-haul international travel.

"Less than 5% of passengers will pay more; but those who fly furthest will pay the most," he told the Commons. 

Long-haul distances where passengers will see the higher rate of APD include Australia and New Zealand and parts of South America. 

Mark Tanzer, Chief Executive of ABTA – The Travel Association said the move was regrettable considering it increased rates for long-haul passengers.

"With the industry only at the beginning of its recovery, now is not the time to be announcing future tax rises on the sector," he said. 

"As it stands, APD is not – and has never been – an environmental tax; the revenues are not hypothecated or used for environmental purposes, such as investing in the development of sustainable aviation fuels, and the tax does not encourage use of newer, cleaner aircraft.

"Looking to the medium and longer term, we are supportive of fundamental reform of APD with the aim of creating fair taxation within the travel industry, which reflects the economic benefits of the sector and recognises the environmental impacts of travel.”

Aside from the new domestic APD, the rates for the short and long-haul bands will increase in line with RPI, meaning that the short-haul economy rate will remain frozen at £13 and the long-haul economy rate will increase by £3.

Criticism that the Treasury lacked focus on green policies in the Budget also stretched to the decision to freeze the fuel duty rise for the 12th year in a row, with Sunak boasting it would save drivers £1,900.

Paul Johnson from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), Paul Johnson said freezing fuel duty was not only a “big tax loss” but “hardly consistent with climate change objectives”.

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