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Trouble in the air: How Government flights pumped out 1,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide  

The inevitable head-on collision between Britain’s climate change and aviation policies moves a step closer today with figures showing the total distance flown by the Government’s own ministers and senior officials last year alone is equivalent to 14 return trips to the Moon.

Tony Blair, his cabinet colleagues and their officials clocked up 6.5 million air miles, according to the Cabinet Office’s list of flights during the 2005-2006 financial year – and in doing so pumped almost 1,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, analysis shows.

Environmental groups went on the attack last night over the huge scale of the emissions. The figures starkly underline the fact that, although the Blair Government is talking ever more loudly about the problem of global warming, it cannot itself get to grips with its fastest-rising cause – emissions of greenhouse gases from aircraft engines.

If they are not reduced, it will be impossible for the UK to achieve its long-term climate target of cutting back CO2 by 60 per cent by 2050 – yet the Government’s official aviation policy is for flying to expand enormously between now and 2030.

The Liberal Democrats, who commissioned the research, said replacing the 350 flights to Brussels or Paris by ministers and officials with trips on Eurostar would have saved more than 30 tons of carbon.

Further criticism of the Government will come tomorrow in a report from Oxford University, that says ministers’ support for airport expansion is completely at odds with their drive to combat climate change. It will warn that, by 2050, carbon dioxide emissions from aviation in the UK could be up to 10 times higher than in 1990, taking up two-thirds of the Government’s total emissions target.

Dr Brenda Boardman, project leader at Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute, said air travel by ministers was “a very good example” of the contradictions in the Government’s policies.

Top of the Government’s carbon league was Mr Blair, whose 13 flights, including trips to Australia, Washington and Beijing, created an estimated 500 tons of carbon dioxide. The Department of Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) was the fifth highest polluter, with an estimated 34.7 tons of carbon dioxide from its trips.

The CarbonNeutral Company, which worked out the figures, found the Government’s flights, which cost a total of £3.5m, created 966.4 tons of carbon dioxide.

The Liberal Democrats called on ministers to cut their emissions. Chris Huhne, the party’s environment spokesman, said: “Tony Blair’s jet-set Cabinet is sending out completely the wrong message. The carbon dioxide emissions from ministerial travel are leaving an indelible footprint on our planet.

“The Government has been warned it could miss its targets for reducing CO2 and it is now time for ministers to start setting an example. The Government has failed completely to tackle the problem of aviation pollution. Not only is it wasting taxpayers’ money taking expensive and unnecessary flights, including many to Brussels and Paris for which there is an easy alternative.”

Mr Huhne said the Government had done nothing to tackle aviation emissions generally and should replace Air Passenger Duty with an emissions charge on each aircraft taking off.

Emily Armistead, climate campaigner with the pressure group Greenpeace, said: “This is the wrong message to send when aviation is a massive problem in terms of CO2 emissions and it is growing exponentially. What the Government should be doing is leading the way in tackling business travel and making sure journeys are absolutely necessary. If they have to go to Brussels they should go on the train or perhaps use video-conferencing.

“They are completely unwilling to tackle the issue of aviation. They are planning for airport expansion, not even keeping air travel at its current level.”

The Government said it was the first in the world to offset its emissions from air travel – neutralising the amount of carbon used by reducing emissions by the same amount elsewhere.

But critics say the ability to buy offsets deters real behavioural change and that there are doubts about some of the projects being funded. For example, destroying industrial waste gases brings little long-term benefit.

Mr Blair began offsetting last year and, since April, all ministers and officials have been recording emissions, which will be offset over a three-year period to 2009 by backing small scale and sustainable energy efficiency and renewable energy projects under a United Nations scheme.

“Whilst the figures look high, it must be remembered that travel remains an essential part of government business, particularly for ministers who face tight schedules and time constraints to complete their duties,” said a Defra spokesman. “The Government recognises that offsetting is only part of the picture, and is taking measures to encourage more sustainable travel –for example, the use of Eurostar where possible and the use of video conferencing.”

Today, all MPs will be urged to back a personal carbon trading scheme being piloted by the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) under which people would have an annual carbon limit. If they exceed it, they would have to buy carbon credits. If they were below it, they could sell their credits.

David Miliband, the Environment Secretary, will join the scheme tomorrow, allowing the RSA’s Carbon Limited project to monitor his lifestyle to see whether he is setting a good example to the nation.

Offsetting: A viable solution?

* Carbon offsetting is a way of neutralising, or making up for, the emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), the principal greenhouse gas causing global warming, that you yourself are responsible for.

* It means paying for reductions in emissions somewhere else, that are equivalent in volume to your own.

* At it simplest this could be envisaged as paying a firm to plant trees on your behalf, to soak up the CO2 of which you have been the source.

* But there are difficulties with trees as the precise amount of CO2 they absorb is not easy to calculate, and they may die of disease, be burnt in a forest fire, or cut down.

* Offsetting more frequently focuses on buying carbon ‘credits’ from renewable energy projects such as windfarms, which do not produce CO2 at all.

* There are other potential difficulties with offsetting firms, such as how they are policed and who guarantees customers they are doing a good job.

* But the principal objection to offsetting is that it makes people think their polluting can be cancelled out by paying a small cash sum, and so they do not change their behaviour.

The worst offenders

Tonnes of Co2 emitted by flights

Prime Minister: 500.9

Foreign Office: 149.0

MOD: 109.7

Treasury: 35.8

DEFRA: 34.7

Int Development; 29.2

DTI: 22.1

ODPM: 18.1

Home Office: 17.3

DCMS: 13.3

Cherie Blair: 12

Northern Ireland: 8

Leader of Commons (Jack Straw): 4.4

Leader of Lords (Baroness Amos): 4.3

Transport: 2.8

Work and Pensions: 2.4

DCA/Lord Chancellor: 1.9

Health: 0.2

Hazel Blears: 0.2

TOTAL: 966.3

Flights to Brussels and Paris by ministers and officials 2005-06 and how carbon emissions could be reduced by using Eurostar

Foreign Office
Number of journeys: 164
Flight emissions (tonnes): 17.4
Eurostar emissions (tonnes): 1.1
Savings by Eurostar (tonnes): 16.3

Prime Minister
Number of journeys: 63
Flight emissions (tonnes): 7.7
Eurostar emissions (tonnes): 0.5
Savings by Eurostar (tonnes): 7.3

Number of journeys: 47
Flight emissions (tonnes): 5.3
Eurostar emissions (tonnes): 0.9
Savings by Eurostar (tonnes): 4.4

Number of journeys: 19
Flight emissions (tonnes): 2.0
Eurostar emissions (tonnes): 0.3
Savings by Eurostar (tonnes): 1.8

Number of journeys: 14
Flight emissions (tonnes): 1.5
Eurostar emissions (tonnes): 0.2
Savings by Eurostar (tonnes): 1.3

Home Office
Number of journeys: 7
Flight emissions (tonnes): 1.2
Eurostar emissions (tonnes): 0.2
Savings by Eurostar (tonnes): 1.0

Work and Pensions
Number of journeys: 5
Flight emissions (tonnes): 0.6
Eurostar emissions (tonnes): 0.2
Savings by Eurostar (tonnes): 0.5

Deputy PM
Number of journeys: 1
Flight emissions (tonnes): 0.2
Eurostar emissions (tonnes): 0.1
Savings by Eurostar (tonnes): 0.1

Number of journeys: 1
Flight emissions (tonnes): 0.2
Eurostar emissions (tonnes): 0.1
Savings by Eurostar (tonnes): 0.1

Number of journeys: 321
Flight emissions (tonnes): 36.2
Eurostar emissions (tonnes): 3.5
Savings by Eurostar (tonnes): 32.7

By Ben Russell and Andrew Grice


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