Transport CommitteeWritten evidence from Dr. Mayer Hillman (AS 117)

Catering for more Air Travel

Agreement on a need to find the best solution to match the rising demand for air travel, especially in the South East of England, has certainly been made very much easier by the near-unanimous support from all three of the main political parties for this aspect of policy for the future. It fits in well with the commonly-held view that governments have a responsibility to do their best to meet the demand for what people want to do, such as being able to travel further and faster, and as frequently as they wish, and that restrictions on their preferences should only have to be imposed in extremis.

This degree of support is mirrored, too, in the call from leaders within the business community, the trades union and well-informed media commentators on public policy, to invest more in “infrastructural projects”. In a recent Observer article, Will Hutton criticised the current Coalition for its failure to give the go-ahead to the new airports ‘we so desperately need’ to speed up the country’s return to economic growth and to create more jobs.

Very few academics, economists or consultants in this field hold dissimilar views. However, as a significant number not only rely on Government commissions but are working on them, the absence of any critical comments on the justification for more capacity for air travel should not necessarily be taken as demonstrating their support. Whatever their private doubts, they probably feel that their involvement debars them from voicing in public any concerns they have about the case for proceeding with building more transport infrastructure.

The implications of Climate Change

Supporters appear to be unaware of the critical contradiction between aiming to meet the growing demand for long-distance travel by air while at the same time limiting the devastating consequences of climate change. It may be that they are in denial of the scientific evidence on this; or think it insufficiently relevant to the current policy of promoting economic growth, almost at any cost.

However, no domain of policy can sensibly be determined without reference to factors that could substantially affect it. In this instance, the overriding consideration relates to the impact of climate change on the future habitability of the planet and on the quality of life of its inhabitants. Appropriate decisions on future investment generally and airport capacity in particular are a case in point.

Now that the significance and implications of climate change are becoming more widely understood, a distinction must surely be drawn between developments which are detrimental to our long-term future (such as those resulting from policies which facilitate, if not subsidise, carbon-intensive activities) and those which are not? Current patterns of fossil fuel-based transport activity alone are already way in excess of the safe level beyond which the equilibrium of the climate system can be assured.

In considering the consequences of catering for more air travel as part of a strategy aimed at establishing how best to do so, all the costs incurred, in so far as they can be calculated, should be included in the cost-benefit analysis. These should obviously include those stemming from adding further greenhouse gases from fossil fuel use to the current disturbingly high atmospheric concentrations. These gases are already the cause of the deteriorating condition of many regions around the world, and are responsible for a process leading to the enforced migration of millions of people. This is a major moral as well as an economic issue that remains to be addressed.

Were these additional costs paid for in the transport sector in fares, the projected demand would clearly fall substantially, and the justification for expansion of the infrastructure to accommodate further air travel would be exposed and then seen to be highly questionable. If realised, any proposal aimed at facilitating the predicted growth in air travel, let alone maintaining it at its current level, would make an environmentally damaging contribution to a higher carbon future just at a time when the need to urgently reverse this process is becoming ever more imperative.

The spreading addiction to fossil-fuel-based lifestyles around the world, not least in the transport sector, is pointing to the very real prospect of ecological catastrophe on such a scale as to gravely prejudice the quality of life—if not life—prospects for the generations succeeding us. The time is long over for burying our collective heads in the sand on this most critical of issues for we are at a defining moment in history: it is essential that we recognise both the gravity of the situation and the necessary steps that have to be taken in light of it.

There is now near-consensus in the scientific community that human-induced global warming poses the greatest threat ever to have faced mankind. A recent IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report included the calculation that a curtailment of fossil fuel use down to zero carbon emissions must be speedily achieved—that is way beyond the widely accepted figure in the UK of an 80% reduction by 2050 which is, in any case, now widely recognised as a seriously insufficient target to prevent irreversible climate change.

What is overlooked is the fact that the planet’s atmosphere has only a finite non-negotiable capacity to safely absorb the gases from further fossil fuel use, especially those released into the upper atmosphere. The absence of suggestions as to how the ice cap in the Arctic can now be returned to its former area rather than continuing to rapidly decline provides near-indisputable evidence for believing that that capacity has already been exceeded.


Politicians and the public alike need urgently to realise that there is only one way of achieving the essential and early goal of close-to-zero carbon emissions. It is the adoption of the GCI (Global Commons Institute) “Contraction and Convergence” framework (see the GCI website at which may well lead to the introduction of per capita carbon rationing. If we are to limit the extent of further loss of the planet’s habitability, that ration will have to be so small that little air travel will be possible. We cannot continue to deceive ourselves that long-distance journeys by air are not too profligate in fuel use and that the resultant greenhouse gas emissions can be added to their already excessive concentrations in the atmosphere.

So, one may ask, what is the logic of seeking to find the best way to cater for the growing demand for air travel?

14 November 2012

Prepared 24th May 2013