Sir George grills Prime Minister on green issues
8 Feb 2007
Below is the text of the exchange between Sir George and the Prime Minister at the recent meeting of the Liaison Committee:

Q7 Sir George Young: Prime Minister, within the theme that Tim has just mentioned, can we focus on transport, which is the only area where carbon emissions are higher than in 1990, and within that look at aviation, which hardly gets a mention in this document, where emissions were up by 111 per cent since 1990. When you were here a year ago we asked you about the airport duty tax, and what you said is, if you are going to make an impact (to use your words) there has got to be "a pretty hefty whack". Was restoring the airport duty back to £10 for European travel in the Pre-Budget Report a "hefty whack" or was it a light tap on the wrist?

Mr Blair: It was a step. I do not think I was that keen when I spoke to you last on having a hefty whack on the average consumer. I do think on this, because I have had a certain amount of criticism on this myself, the most important thing on aviation is that (1) we get aviation into the European trading system, which we have now got the European Commission to agree from 2011, I think it is, and (2) that we continue the research into, for example, lighter air frames or increased fuel efficiency of aviation fuel. I personally think, and I know this is not a very popular view in certain quarters, that it is just not serious or practical to say to people "Don't travel by air".

Q8 Sir George Young: So when the Chancellor said, in the Pre-Budget Report, that the Government recognised the role that air passenger duty can play in tackling the climate change impact of aviation, was he right or wrong?

Mr Blair: He is absolutely right. Again, stating the obvious, and I am sure you would recognise this from the time you were in government, you have got to balance the different views of people. If you did (and, as I say, I do not think I was advocating a hefty whack on consumers last year; I think I was more or less saying I do not think that is very sensible) you would simply get a backlash from, often, incidentally, some of the lowest-income families, for whom cheap air travel has been a great bonus. I do not think we should be too dismissive of that.

Q9 Sir George Young: I want to come back to whether you will hit your targets if you do not take these serious decisions. On aviation, if you get on a domestic flight CO2 emissions score; if you get on an international flight they do not - they are off the balance sheet. That has to be wrong. Should we not score all emissions from all flights from the UK, wherever the destination, instead of just the domestic ones?

Mr Blair: You probably know more about this than me, but is there not a big debate about, then, how you deal with incoming flights and so on, and what the balance of that is for other countries? The only thing I am saying to you, Sir George, is this: is it not a fact that you will need to make sure that this is done on a global basis? Otherwise the danger is you simply hit UK consumers and UK airlines when, actually, our airline emissions, however you calculate them, are a tiny percentage of overall ----

Q10 Sir George Young: However, somewhere in the equation international emissions should be scored, and at the moment they do not seem to be.

Mr Blair: Is it not also an issue to do with the fact that, for example, Heathrow is a big, hub airport and, therefore, you can get yourself into all sorts of difficulties, I fear, on this, but I am happy to look into that and I can give you a more detailed reply.

Q11 Sir George Young: Can we look at Road Transport. In the document that you sent us you take the credit for a landmark demonstration of road pricing. I think that was the London Congestion Charge, which the Government played very little role in promoting.

Mr Blair: With respect, we played some role in it, since we set up both the London Assembly and the Mayor, and the power to introduce it.

Q12 Sir George Young: When he wanted to do it the Government was nowhere.

Mr Blair: I do not say we were nowhere but I think most people have recognised it was a ground-breaking move. To be honest, I was dubious about it myself but I have to take my hat off to Ken Livingstone - I think he was right about it.

Q13 Sir George Young: It comes back to leadership, in that you were prepared to let somebody else make the running whereas, at the beginning of the presentation, you were saying we are going to need leadership to drive up the targets.

Mr Blair: Sir George, you can make these points but, in the end, most people would accept from the outside that Britain has been a leader in climate change. For example, the Climate Change Levy was a huge thing. I think we were one of the first, if not the first, countries round the world to introduce such a proposal. If you look at the recent increases in the demands for energy efficiency in buildings, there is an immense amount we have done. I think the mood on this issue is changing the whole time. When we first introduced the Climate Change Levy, when we first started this as part of our international discussion and when we first tried to get Europe to introduce the European trading system, the mood was very different. There is a fairer wind behind us today and, therefore, to this extent I think you are right that we can probably be bolder today than we could have got away with politically a few years back.

Q14 Sir George Young: One last question: if you look at the real cost of both driving and flying, they are more affordable now than when you started; if you look at bus and train fares, they have gone up by 31 per cent and 16 per cent. If you want a sustainable and balanced transport policy, and also one that is fair on people with low incomes, should you not actually have reversed those two indicators instead of having them going further apart?

Mr Blair: No, because I think you would have done tremendous damage to people who need to use the car. The best thing is to improve fuel efficiency, which we are - new cars are far more fuel-efficient than the old - and to give greater incentives, as we are doing - there is something like a £200 differential now - for the most fuel-efficient vehicles. This is practical policy making. I suppose, thinking back to the days when I was in opposition and you were in Government, if you were sitting here answering these questions you would have said to me: "You have got to balance out the interests of various different people". If you ended up imposing massive additional fuel duties, for example - remember the fuel protests we had in the year 2,000 - you have got to balance these things and get the balance right. I recall at the time, in the year 2,000, there were many people, I think even in your own party, who were more or less backing the fuel protesters. So, you have to strike a balance. That is all I am saying. I think we are doing the maximum we responsibly should as a country, or will when we introduce the new Climate Change Bill, whilst providing a tremendous amount of energy and commitment in getting the international agreement that is the only way we are going to make a difference on this issue. Otherwise, we end up penalising the British consumer when others are not taking any of the strained circumstances, where they have to in order to make a difference on this issue, because we are such a small part of the overall problem.

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