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Our green dream must not be lost in clouds

The pressure is on the UK Coalition Government to reduce – or even, amazingly, to abolish – Air Passenger Duty (APD).

Airlines, tour operators, airport authorities, business travellers and holidaymakers are all being urged to join the growing campaign against this controversial tax.

The Government should ignore this loud, self-interested clamour. It is selfish short-termism at its worst. Indeed there is a case for further increasing APD, although it would perhaps be more efficient to charge it per plane rather than per passenger, which might help to deal with the scandal of half-empty planes polluting the skies. The businessmen who started the cheap flights travel boom a couple of generations ago worked out that it made sense to have full planes in both directions, though this elementary logic seems recently to have been lost somewhere in the clouds (some of them no doubt caused by emissions).

Several times in the past few years I've flown on planes which were clearly less than half full. And yes – I do fly, though far less frequently than I used to. And I accept that further reducing my air travel would probably be the biggest single step I could personally take to help the global environment.

It's true that most other countries tax air passengers less than the UK does, but this does not mean that these other countries are right. Reducing APD would be a clear (not perhaps the right word in this particular context) signal that the Government wanted to shed any "green" credentials that it still retains. Aviation accounts for about 6% of our carbon dioxide output, and this proportion is expected to rise to as much as 18% in the next 20 years, as other sources of output decrease their emissions. High altitude aviation emissions are reckoned to have a much more damaging climate change effect than other emissions.

Vociferous airline bosses such as Michael O'Leary of Ryanair and Willie Walsh of IAG (British Airways) insist that APD is a job-destroying tax. It need not be; and anyway you could argue that almost all taxes are potentially job-destroying in one way or another. Our very voluble captains of industry should be able to create jobs and wealth while paying legitimate and fair taxes. Not easy, I accept, but it's what they are paid vast sums to do.

Meanwhile air transport fuel, kerosene, remains exempt from duty, which I've always thought was quite extraordinary. As motorists and road hauliers know only too well, the petrol for their vehicles is anything but exempt from duty.

One of the more brave decisions the Conservatives took in opposition, before the 2010 General Election, was to say no to a third runway at Heathrow Airport. Despite sustained lobbying, they have so far stood firm. But now several Tory right-wingers are making policy reversal on this issue a kind of virility test of their ability to swing the Coalition in their direction, and they are now being joined by some Labour figures, including the former Chancellor, Alistair Darling. This is an exceptionally articulate and politically powerful pressure group, with many friends in the business world, and I'm afraid the Government may well wobble.

There are probably all too few votes for the Coalition in trying to maintain credibility as the clean, green Government that it wanted to be when it came to power. On the other hand, would the Government gain much electoral support by bowing to pressure from an unlikely alliance of holidaymakers, airport executives, airline chiefs, business bosses and right-wing politicians?

There is an interesting Scottish angle to all this. It has been suggested that APD should be a devolved tax. If so, the Holyrood Government would probably come under extreme pressure to reduce APD for flights in and out of Scotland. If it resisted such pressure, it would be able to take the high political, environmental and indeed moral ground. But then this entire argument is about the supposed need for economic growth at all costs, particularly environmental costs.

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