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Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution > News Releases, Consultation Responses and Statements > 23 May 2003  

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23 May 2003


The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution responded today to the Department for Transport/Treasury consultation paper 'Aviation and the Environment: Using Economic Instruments'.

In a letter to the Treasury Secretary and the Secretary of State for Transport, Sir Tom Blundell, Chairman of the Commission, said

"The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution was encouraged to see your consultation paper dealing with the cost of the environmental damage caused by aviation. However, we are concerned by the incompatibility between the government's Transport policy and the Energy White Paper. The Treasury document does not properly reflect the huge impact that air travel will have on climate change in the future unless its expansion is brought under control; furthermore, a policy of permitting unhindered aviation growth conflicts directly with the goals announced in the Energy White Paper."

Sir Tom acknowledges that the use of economic instruments, as explored in the consultation document, is fully in line with the recommendations made in the Commission's report The Environmental Effects of Civil Aircraft in Flight.1 Particularly welcome is the adoption of the Radiative Forcing Index (RFI) of 2.7 for aviation. This means that emissions of carbon dioxide, the main 'greenhouse gas', from aircraft in flight have an effect about 2.7 times greater than due to their carbon dioxide emissions alone (contrasted with a factor in the range 1 to 1.5 for the sum of other human activities). The Commission emphasises that there remains considerable uncertainty in scientific understanding and the true values could be much larger.

The consultation document predicts that, even with the most conservative figures for growth in air travel, by 2020 aviation will be contributing 10% of the UK's carbon dioxide emissions (paragraph 3.11). The Commission points out that this is misleading because it does not include the radiative forcing due to all the emissions. If air travel expansion goes unchecked, aviation will be costing about a quarter of the UK's climate change budget by 2020, and by 2050 this could have risen to over half or even three quarters of the budget.

2050 is the date by which, according to the government's energy policy published earlier this year, the UK should have reduced its carbon dioxide emissions by 60% (also based on recommendations by the Commission). As pointed out in the recent IPPR report,2 reaching this target will be impossible if the aviation industry is allowed to expand without restriction. A policy of permitting new runways and airport capacity directly contradicts the government's recently published energy policy.

Aviation must not be permitted to expand to the levels at which it is contributing such a huge share of the country's impact on global warming. Increasing the cost of air travel, using economic instruments as recommended in the Commission's report and envisaged in the consultation document, would be an efficient way of reducing demand for air travel. This means that the Department for Transport's predictions of demand, on which the current government consultation on airport expansion is based, are significantly too high.

Sir Tom said:

"The application of economic instruments to aviation will reduce demand to levels considerably lower than those predicted by the Department for Transport - indeed must do so unless the aviation industry is to be permitted to absorb most of the UK's climate change budget. Building new airport capacity at the rate projected would leave the UK with seriously misconceived investment in 'stranded assets'."


The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution is an independent body, appointed by the Queen and funded by the government, which publishes in-depth reports on what it identifies as the crucial environmental issues facing the UK and the world.

The Royal Commission's full reports are presented to Parliament. The Twenty-third Report, The Environmental Effects of Aircraft in Flight, was a Special Study that was carried out over a much shorter timescale than the full reports, but it was based heavily on reports that the Royal Commission has published in the past, together with some new material. It was intended to inform the policy process behind the White Paper on the future of aviation.

The Special Report was published alongside the Royal Commission's response to the government's regional consultation on The Future Development of Air Transport in the UK.3 The Environmental Effects of Civil Aircraft in Flight is available in printed form, or can be downloaded from the Commission's website: http://www.rcep.org.uk/aviation.html. Copies of the printed version are obtainable without charge from Rosemary Ferguson (tel: 020 7799 8972; fax: 020 7799 8971; email: rosemary.ferguson@rcep.org.uk).


Press enquiries should be directed to Rhian Enright, Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, 5-8 The Sanctuary, Westminster, London SW1P 3JS (tel: 020 7799 8987; email rhian.enright@rcep.org.uk).


The Commission published a limited study, The Environmental Effects of Civil Aircraft in Flight (see below) in November 2002. It recommended charges to be levied on aircraft movements, restrictions on airport development, steps to encourage the use of rail instead of air for short journeys, and technological development aimed at reducing aircraft emissions. It argued that air transport should be brought within the scope of the Kyoto Protocol's emissions trading scheme.

The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution has had a longstanding interest in the environmental effects of transport, including aviation, since its First Report in 1970. Its Eighteenth Report, Transport and the Environment, published in 1994, covered transport issues in depth and included a chapter dedicated to aviation. A further report on transport (the Twentieth Report, Transport and the Environment - Developments since 1994) was published in 1997. Neither of these Reports has yet received an official response. Both Reports favoured the idea of an integrated transport policy to encourage the least environmentally damaging form of transport for each leg of any journey.

Since these Reports were published, the case for action to limit climate change has become even more compelling. The Commission's Twenty-second Report, Energy - The Changing Climate, was published in 2000. It called for the UK to take a lead role in international negotiations to combat climate change and to set an example by aiming to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 60% by 2050. In this context, the Commission replied to the government's first round of consultation on the future of air transport, and asserted that 'aviation's impacts on the global environment, and climate change in particular... represent an overarching constraint on the future growth of air transport'.4 The Commission considered that the government's consultation documents failed to recognise the magnitude of the threat posed by climate change and aviation's contribution to that threat.


The Commission's study of the environmental effects of civil aircraft in flight endorsed the conclusion of other bodies, notably the IPCC, that the impact of carbon dioxide emitted from aircraft was about 2.7 times that of carbon dioxide from other sources. This has been acknowledged in the HMT/DfT consultation document except in one respect - calculating how much aircraft will contribute to global warming in the future. This is set out in chapter 3.11 of the document, which shows a contribution of 10-12% by 2020.

The Commission has recalculated the figures incorporating radiative forcing. The revised figures are shown in the table below:

Table 1     Allocation of UK Contribution to Radiative Forcing.
Expressed as million tonnes carbon-equivalent taking Radiative Forcing Index for aircraft in flight as 2.7, assuming 60% reduction in radiative forcing by 2050.

YearAviationEconomy without Aviation(i)Total Economy (ii)% Aviation Share (iii)

(i) Assuming radiative forcing index of 1 for emissions from other activities covered by the Energy White Paper. The figure for the totality of human activities is estimated as between 1 and 1.5.
(ii) Including aviation.
(iii) As percentage of economy including aviation.
(iv) Assuming that growth from 2030 to 2050 only keeps pace with technological improvements.
(v) Assumes 60% reduction in total radiative forcing (from 2000), in line with Energy White Paper.
(vi) By difference, i.e. 68.6 - 51.3 = 17.3.


[1] Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (2002). The Environmental Effects of Civil Aircraft in Flight (see www.rcep.org.uk/aviation.html).

[2] IPPR (2003). The sky's the limit. Policies for sustainable aviation. Simon Bishop and Tony Grayling.

[3] Department for Transport (2002). The Future Development of Air Transport in the United Kingdom: A National Consultation.

[4] Consultation on the future of aviation: Response by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (see www.rcep.org.uk/news/01-1c.html, paragraph 7).


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