UK Cuts Tax on Domestic Flights Ahead of COP26

How to show the world that you are really, really serious about reducing carbon.

planes waiting to take off
Sean Gallup/ Getty Images

The cost of flying in Europe is often ridiculous. When I was last there in 2019, it cost less to fly from London to Porto than it did to take the train from Porto to Aveiro—a distance of 50 miles. We have written before that cheap mass air travel must be stopped because of its carbon footprint. Some countries, like France, are banning short flights.

And then we have the United Kingdom, soon to be the host of the 26th UN Climate Change Conference (COP26). Just days before the start of a conference where one would think the British government would want to look good, Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak opens his little red budget box and announces he is cutting the domestic air passenger duty in half. It's not much, only a £6.50 ($8.96) saving, and it is only on domestic flights.

Sunak says it will boost struggling regional airports and “bring people together across the United Kingdom.” But bring who together?

Andy Bagnall of the Rail Delivery Group—the organization's motto is "Bringing together passenger and freight operators, Network Rail and HS2, to build a better railway for Britain"—was not impressed and released a statement:

"Investment to improve connectivity between the nations of the UK is welcome and flying has its place. But if the government is serious about the environment, it makes little sense to cut air passenger duty on routes where a journey in Britain can already be made by train in under five hours. Our analysis shows this will lead to an extra 1,000 flights a year as 222,000 passengers shift from rail to air. This is disappointing and comes at a time when the industry is working hard to encourage people back to rail travel and build a financially sustainable future."

Sunak defended the move on BBC Radio. He said: "Aviation in general only accounts for about 7-8% of our overall carbon emissions and, of that, I think domestic aviation is less than 5% – so it is a tiny proportion.” That is hardly a tiny proportion, given what a tiny proportion of the population actually flies. It's probably not even accurate, given how aviation emissions are calculated.

He continued to justify it by claiming, “We’re a country that has decarbonised faster than basically any other advanced nation over the past 10, 20, 30 years, so I think our track record on this is pretty good, actually." He doesn't explain that they decarbonized by deindustrializing and by switching from burning coal for electricity to burning biomass, which isn't counted as fossil fuel even though it puts out more carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour generated than burning coal.

Aviation emissions

UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

And while emissions may be going in the right direction for the country as a whole, emissions from aviation were rising fast before the pandemic shut everything down.

The biggest problem is flying is so much cheaper than the train, whether it be domestic or international. If anything, taxes on flying should have been increased significantly. As the co-leader of the Green Party notes: "Once again the Chancellor has shown that he simply does not understand the scale of what is required to tackle the climate crisis. In fact, by cutting air passenger duty and boasting about cheaper fuel for cars he is taking us in the wrong direction."

If this were the U.S. or Canada, one could make the case that people don't have much choice to get around the country—the distances are too long and the railways are too terrible. I can fly from Toronto to New York City in an hour and the train takes 14 hours. But this is an island where the entire country is smaller than U.S. states like Colorado or Oregon, and with decent rail service.

If it seems odd to read a North American writer complaining about a $9 tax break on the other side of the Atlantic, it's because it is just so odd to be doing such a thing in the middle of a climate crisis, a week before the most important climate conference in years. It makes no sense.