In a tiny island country like Britain, which already boasts the highest per capita rate of flying in the world, 46 million short-hop flights a year is an unjustifiable expense. The language of austerity is apparently all around us when it comes to things like public sector pay and housing allowances, but aviation remains a sacred cow. Despite producing and repeatedly trumpeting a laudable Climate Change Act, Whitehall has yet to come to terms with its implications: carbon budgeting is here, and must be of primary concern to policymakers.
Since I rather glibly suggested this idea a month or more ago, Lord Adonis has, coincidentally, stuck his head above the parapet to express some basic common sense on the relative merits of aviation and rail. But by directly linking the decline of domestic aviation to the construction of a putative super-network which may or may not appear within the next twenty years, he is ignoring the fact that we are now at a critical political and climactic juncture, where clear international leadership is required in the run-up to Copenhagen, and when increasing numbers of scientists are warning that greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are reaching levels which could trigger dangerous ‘feedback effects,’ pushing global average temperatures to catastrophic levels. Two thousand and never is not good enough. We need to act on this in the next five years if we are to do justice to the pressures we are under.
The government is already committed to expansion of electrification on the West Coast main line, and since the announcement of policy consultations for High Speed Rail. Two prominent figures have suggested Heathrow could be connected to Birmingham swiftly and effectively by 2011, for as little as £1bn. From there, Manchester, Glasgow and the rest of the Midlands are easily within reach. As such, the absence of a 250mph silver bullet, in the short term, is no excuse for not moving against domestic aviation. It is an unjustifiable insult to the severity of the climate threat, and it compromises the efficiency of congested international airports like Heathrow, which could slash slot costs and ‘stacking’ overnight if domestic flights were removed and the airport was allowed to run at something like 90% capacity – without recourse to the disastrous third runway.
Undeniably, there would be consequences, and inconvenience for a tiny minority of frequent domestic flyers. In an age of universal and instantaneous communication, this should be more than bearable. After all, half of Britons do not fly at all in any given year, (pdf, p29) let alone do it between London and Manchester. There is a debate to be had about whether the flights should be legislated out of existence, or merely rendered unaffordable through taxation. Exemptions for Belfast, Aberdeen, and various outlying islands would of course be unavoidable. But by sending a clear signal of our commitment to slashing emissions in the short term, and focusing minds and money on improving and extending our rail network, a fixed timescale for moving against domestic aviation would help to establish a mood of urgency which is desperately required if we are to prevent climate catastrophe.