May 7, 2019 / 10:07 AM / in a year

Breakingviews - Aviation is acid test for UK climate credibility

Climate change activists from the Extinction Rebellion protest at the Parliament Square in London, Britain May 1, 2019. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - Britons should enjoy cheap stag weekends in Latvia while they can. The UK government has been encouraged by its own advisory body to cut net greenhouse-gas emissions to zero by 2050 – among the most ambitious national targets to date. Given a pre-existing goal for an 80 percent cut by the same date is looking shaky, the implication is either that the targets are hot air, or the government is about to get tough in areas like aviation.

Right now, the former looks more likely. Britain could exceed its legally allowable carbon emissions in 2028-32 by as much as 20 percent, according to government data. The 40 percent cut since 1990 has been achieved via action on industry, electricity generation and waste, but the government is lagging on home insulation and transport. Previous targets have ignored CO2 produced by the troublingly international aviation and shipping sectors – a problem given that analyst Carbon Brief reckons aviation will produce more emissions than anything else in 2050.

A May 2 report by the UK’s Committee on Climate Change doesn’t do that, nor does it allow airlines to offset emissions via carbon-credit schemes such as planting trees in Africa. It also acknowledges that green technology and biofuels will not be riding to aviation’s rescue. Unlike cars, electric passenger jets remain dreams that even Elon Musk is not chasing, while Deutsche Lufthansa Chief Executive Carsten Spohr noted recently that switching his airline to biofuels would mean ploughing up a third of Germany.

That points to the need for more drastic action. Passenger taxes are the bluntest yet simplest way to curb demand that is likely to push European aviation’s annual CO2 emissions up by 21 percent to 198 million tonnes by 2040, according to EU estimates based on best-case technology scenarios. The risk of a unilateral UK levy is that sun-seeking Brits skirt it by catching a train to France and flying long-haul from there. But it might still make sense to ramp up the UK’s short-haul 26 pounds per seat air passenger duty. The losers would be the shorter intra-European routes that have mushroomed this century under the likes of easyJet and Ryanair.

Jacking up the cost of a few days in Riga or on the Costa del Sol will be politically unpopular. If the government does it, it will therefore show it is serious.


Reuters Breakingviews is the world's leading source of agenda-setting financial insight. As the Reuters brand for financial commentary, we dissect the big business and economic stories as they break around the world every day. A global team of about 30 correspondents in New York, London, Hong Kong and other major cities provides expert analysis in real time.

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