Scottish ministers have come under fierce fire for planning to boost climate pollution by cutting one of the few taxes on flying.

The government’s promise to halve and then abolish air passenger duty (APD) in Scotland would be “totally counterproductive” say leading environmentalists, who are pressing for the tax to stay.

The SNP government wants to help the Scottish economy by cutting APD 50 per cent in April 2018 and then getting rid of it altogether “when public finances permit”. But the plan has provoked growing opposition because it could make it more difficult to meet Scotland’s ambitious targets to combat climate change.

Mike Robinson, a board member of the umbrella group, Stop Climate Chaos Scotland, who sits on the government’s APD stakeholder forum, pointed out that aviation has kept growing despite the tax.

“All this cut will do is to leave a handful of regular fliers slightly better off, the aviation industry a little richer, and the tax man and the environment very much the poorer,” he told the Sunday Herald.

“And this in an industry which according to the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the UK Treasury is one of the least taxed industries in the world.”

Robinson pointed out that abolishing APD would cost the Scottish Government £250 million a year, and send the wrong message to the Paris climate summit at the end of the month. “Domestically the idea of removing this tax-cut feels a totally counterproductive signal to public engagement,” he said.

For Friends of the Earth Scotland, the plan to cut APD was a “major blot” on the government’s record. WWF Scotland pointed out that the government’s own analysis showed that axing APD would increase climate emissions from flying, while the Scottish Greens said that scrapping it “would put money in the pockets of wealthy frequent-fliers and profit-heavy airlines.”

The Scottish Government, however, strongly defended its plans, arguing they would generate “sustainable growth” by improving airport connectivity. “UK APD has been the most expensive tax of its kind in Europe and continues to act as a barrier to Scotland’s ability to secure new direct air routes and maintain existing ones,” said a government spokeswoman.

“We recognise that there are also important environmental issues to consider and that is why we are working with environmental groups on our APD stakeholder forum and we will be undertaking and publishing a strategic environmental assessment alongside the development of our legislative proposals.”

The government was backed by Edinburgh Airport. “The sooner they do it the better,” said an airport spokesman. “Scrapping this punitive travel tax - which hampers economic growth and forces hard working families to pay restrictive additional travel costs – will give Scotland greater bargaining power with airlines and help allow the country to flourish across the globe.”