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Cutting air passenger duty shows the government is going backwards on climate action

4 min read

Rather than making flying even cheaper, ministers should get on with the job of investing in a green economy that will provide sustainable jobs for the future

Little more than 10 weeks into 2021, a vital year for climate action, this government’s limited green credentials are rapidly disintegrating as it abandons even the modest steps being taken to address the climate crisis.

In January, it greenlit a new coalmine in Cumbria – a decision overturned only after the protests of climate campaigners and the criticism of US President Joe Biden’s climate envoy, John Kerry.

The Green Homes Grant, the only government-backed programme to insulate our notoriously-leaky homes, is being starved of funds with nothing to replace it.

The Chancellor’s budget speech made not a single mention of climate or nature. What green initiatives were announced, like the new green bonds for ordinary savers and a change to the Bank of England’s mandate, were undermined by the freeze on the fuel duty escalator for the 11th consecutive year.

The clear signal is that air and car travel get a tax break while train travellers are penalised

Not only that, the super deduction tax break seems to have no climate strings attached, which raises the very real prospect of huge tax breaks turbo-charging investments in the oil and gas sector.

Then to cap it all, the government plans to cut passenger duty on domestic flights – at the same time as rail fares are to rise by above the rate of inflation.

The clear signal is that air and car travel get a tax break while train travellers are penalised.

Let’s call this what it is: we are going backwards on climate action – and in a year when what the UK government does is under the global spotlight as never before because we are hosts of the next UN climate summit.

Controlling rising emissions from aviation is absolutely vital if we are to meet climate targets. We won’t do that by making the most carbon-intensive form of travel cheaper than less damaging alternatives, especially when its share of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions is predicted to rise to 25 per cent by 2050.

It is an industry which enjoys huge subsidies through not paying tax on aviation fuel or VAT on ticket sales – a benefit worth an estimated £11.6bn in 2018, according to the Aviation Environment Federation. Raising APD on foreign flights to ‘balance out’ the cut on domestic flights doesn’t change that.

On aviation’s future, the government’s own advisers, the Committee on Climate Change, are clear: there “should be no net expansion of UK airport capacity unless the sector is on track to sufficiently outperform its net emissions trajectory”.

There is no sign of that, and cutting passenger duty on domestic flights is the quickest way to driving up demand and creating a justification for airport expansion.

The Prime Minister is not only failing to show any leadership on climate, he’s also misreading the public mood. People want stronger government action on climate and for the UK to show genuine leadership. The Citizens’ Assembly on climate came out strongly in favour of higher taxes on flying through a frequent flyer levy – not making it cheaper.

This government needs to start facing the hard choices needed to transition from a carbon-dependent economy to one based on net zero emissions. Its inaction risks making the same mistakes on climate as it did with coronavirus: not paying sufficient attention to the science until it is too late. But with climate breakdown, there will be no vaccine to rescue us.

Rather than making flying even cheaper, ministers should get on with the job of investing in a green economy that will provide sustainable jobs for the future. The Prime Minister has promised to build back better and build back greener. We are still waiting.


Caroline Lucas is the Green MP for Brighton Pavilion.

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