Scottish Government drops plans to cut aviation tax – what does this mean for the climate?

May 9th, 2019 Posted by Blogs, Policy No Comment yet
In this blog post, our Policy Team co-chair Alex Luetchford explores the news that the Scottish Government are no longer planning on scrapping Air Departure Tax.

With the Scottish and UK governments (as well as dozens of local authorities) declaring ‘climate emergencies’ over the past few weeks, there have been a string of good news stories regarding climate change recently. However, many environmental activists and groups had warned that merely declaring an emergency was meaningless unless followed up by strong action. It is heartening to see that this is starting to happen. As well as introducing more ambitious emissions targets, this week the Scottish Government announced that is is dropping its plans to scrap Air Departure Tax (ADT), saying that the policy does not fit in with Scotland’s commitment to reach net-zero emissions by 2045..

2050 Climate Group strongly welcomes this decision-reversal; indeed, we argued against the tax cut way back in 2016 when the Government first consulted on the issue. Our position was developed by surveying the young people in our network, as it was found that on average, 38% our our Young Leaders’ carbon emissions came from flying.

We think it is amazing to see the Government’s previous declaration of a climate emergency being translated into positive action so quickly. That being said, more reform of the aviation industry is needed if we are to avoid climate breakdown. Our generation of young people stand to have the most to lose from the impacts of climate change – but we are also best placed to respond to this challenge. That’s why 2050 Climate Group exists to educate, engage, and empower young people to take climate action.

Where did this decision come from?

In 2016, the power to set Air Passenger Duty (now called Air Departure Tax) was devolved to the Scottish Parliament. The SNP then pledged to scrap Air Passenger Duty in their manifesto for the 2016 Holyrood election. This tax is levied against each adult passenger on every flight departing from the UK (exceptions apply if you are just transferring flights in the UK, or travelling from Northern Ireland or the Scottish Highlands). The rate for short-haul flights (less than 2000 miles) is currently £13 for economy class and £26 for all other classes, with a much higher rate for long-haul flights.

The SNP argued that by initially halving the tax, and then eventually getting rid of it all together, Scotland would become a more connected place, with our airports becoming more attractive (i.e. cheaper) places to fly to. The SNP were seeking to improve Scotland’s economic performance, as well as boosting job creation and cultural exchange. On the face of it you can see the appeal – making it cheaper to fly to and from Scotland would increase tourism, and bring with it the associated economic gains.

However, it would obviously incentivise more flights, and thus an increase in fossil fuel consumption. The Government’s own analysis suggested that the policy of scrapping the tax would mean Scotland’s emissions increased by between 87,000 – 101,000 tonnes CO2e. We argued that any potential short term improvements to the economy gained by this policy would be outweighed by the long-term environmental and economic costs of climate change. We also pointed out that this policy was not coherent with the Scottish Government’s rhetoric and targets around climate change. Scrapping air tax whilst boosting active travel spending, for example, would be taking one step forward, two steps back. Their announcement this week seems to recognise this, with Roseanna Cunningham MSP, the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, saying that the policy was “incompatible” with their new target of having net-zero emissions by 2045.

Good news – but it could be better!

So, keeping ADT in place is good news, as it will avoid some additional greenhouse gas emissions. It is also a sign of intent from the Scottish Government. U-turns can be embarrassing for politicians, so it takes bravery to stand up and admit that a policy isn’t the right way forward. This decision is an example of the government seeming to take its declaration of a climate emergency seriously.

However, there is still plenty more work to do in terms of tackling emissions from transport. The 87,000 – 101,000 tonne CO2e increase in emissions from scrapping ADT would have increased emissions from Scotland’s transport sector by less than 1%. Quite simply, transport is the biggest problem Scotland faces in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The decision not to cut ADT is just a drop in the ocean. Whilst this U-turn is very welcome, we need bigger, bolder solutions.

Total emissions in Scotland have almost halved between 1990 and 2016, but transport has not followed this trend; in the same period, transport emissions only fell by 2.5%. Indeed, emissions from transport have actually been increasing since 2013, and now account for 37% of Scotland’s total emissions (more than any other industry).

Main Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions in Scotland, 1990 to 2016. Values in MtCO2e

Within the sector, road transport is the main problem, accounting for a whopping 73% of Scotland’s transport emissions in 2015. But let’s park that for now (if you’ll excuse the pun). This blog is about aviation emissions, which are also a big problem. These have increased by 46% since 1990, and they made up 15% of transport emissions in 2015.

Part of the problem is that aviation is already one of the least-taxed industries in the world. There is no tax on aeroplane fuel, and no VAT on airline tickets. As such, removing ADT would have resulted in aviation becoming a largely un-taxed industry. Instead of cutting ADT, the Scottish Government could use the climate emergency as an opportunity to implement higher, more progressive taxes on the aviation industry. Increasing the costs of high-carbon activities, like flying, is an important way of disincentivising people from these activities. One possibility would be a Frequent Flyer Tax, which would increase for each flight you take. Another alternative would be to structure tax incentives so that the airlines are incentivised to fly the most efficient planes, with a full load.

Furthermore, given that the aim of cutting ADT was to improve connectivity, it is notable that over half the gains made from this policy would have been from UK-internal flights. A much better way of increasing Scotland’s connectivity would thus be to look at boosting alternative, lower-carbon methods of transport within the UK. We are small country, geographically speaking, and so improving and investing in coaches and high-speed rail makes much more environmental sense. These forms of transport produce far fewer greenhouse gasses than flying, yet are already taxed more heavily.

Personal choices are shaped by policies

I live in Scotland, but hailing from sunny Sussex, I face a difficult decision every time I want to travel home to see my parents – a decision thousands of others also have to make when choosing how to travel long distance in this country.

On the one hand, I much prefer travelling by train. It is usually very comfortable, there’s no waiting around in security queues, and I get to enjoy the stunning scenery of the East Coast mainline. And of course, getting the train home is much greener – it produces almost 6 times fewer emissions than getting a flight from Edinburgh to Gatwick.

The view from the East Coast Mainline as it goes through Berwickshire

The view from the East Coast Mainline as it goes through Berwickshire (Photo credit: Mat Fascione [cc-by-sa/2.0])

The choice in how I travel is made much more difficult by the costs involved. If I booked a train right now, and even by booking advanced singles, the cost of a return trip is £168. Flying from Edinburgh to Gatwick on the same dates would cost me as little as £70. When I was a student I often had to fly home for Christmas because I simply couldn’t afford the train. Young people typically earn much less, so are under even more financial pressure to fly. Similarly, for organisations concerned by their travel budgets, the decision of whether to fly or train between Scotland and London is an obvious one. The Caledonian Sleeper service has just started running their fancy new carriages – but the cost of tickets has increased significantly. And these financial choices apply to holiday-makers too. The surge in cheap flights to European cities has made Ryanair the EU’s 10th biggest emitter of carbon emissions.

If the Government wants to tackle the problem of aviation-related carbon emissions seriously, it must do more than just U-turn on a tax cut. There are many, many policies that could reduce the climate impact of transport, but we must make long-distance rail travel cheaper than flying. 2050 starts now.

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