Air travel passenger numbers can increase by up to 60 per cent, or the equivalent of an extra 140 million passengers a year by 2050, according to the government's independent advisors, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), while still keeping to Government targets on carbon emissions.
In January this year the Government set a target for carbon emissions from aviation to not exceed 2005 levels by 2050. This would allow aviation to grow from 6 per cent of the UK's total emissions to 25 per cent.
Taking account of a likely passenger demand increase of 115 per cent in that timeframe, the committee said the target could not be met through technological changes alone - such as biofuels or engine efficiency - and that passenger demand for flights would need to be curbed.
Limits on flights
'There has to be a set of policy levers that either puts limits on airport capacity, slot restrictions or increase the price. But how do you square that with fairness? Richer people fly more, so if you leave it to price then the poor will lose out. So we have to think about other policy measures to be compatible with 2 or 3 flights per person per year,' said CCC chairman Lord Turner.
The report said options like high-speed rail could take up to 80-90 per cent of UK domestic travel and reduce demand for short-haul flights in Europe by 10 per cent by 2050. This would add up to an eight per cent overall drop in aviation demand by 2050 from the switch to rail.
Video-conferencing could also reduce business travel by up to 30 per cent by 2050.
However, it said there was no alternative to long-haul flights.
'We have something that people want to spend money on as they get older and which we have no ready substitute for. You can't substitute a rail ticket for a long-haul flight,' said Turner.
On the controversial decision to allow a third runway to be built at Heathrow, the Committee said there had to be a limit on the total number of flights in and out of the UK of 3.4 million by 2050 (it currently stands at 2.2 million).
The Heathrow expansion would therefore be at the cost of any other expansion capacity at other airports in the UK.
'It doesn't take all that growth but it takes a sizeable chunk. It is not our job to advise the Government about where that growth can be allowed but the more you expand Heathrow the less you can expand elsewhere,' said Turner.
Transport secretary Lord Adonis welcomed the report's recommendations, particularly on high-speed rail and said they would be considered when the UK announces its policy on airports in 2011.
WWF director of campaigns David Norman said the government needed to re-think its policy on airport expansion.
'The Committee rightly advises that passenger numbers and aircraft movements must be significantly constrained if we are to meet legally binding 2050 emissions targets. A full programme of airport expansion, as promoted in the existing White Paper, simply doesn’t work alongside this advice,' he said.
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