Analysis: Defeat of aviation lobby first win for those who take Scotland’s climate emergency seriously

Ben Wray

CommonSpace editor Ben Wray says that the climate movement should register the significance of the Scottish Government’s decision to scrap plans to cut Air Passenger Duty by 50 per cent: a victory over a well organised and determined corporate aviation lobby

SUCCESSES are hard to come by for those who work in the grassroots of politics, and doubly so on issues where a powerful corporate lobby clearly stands on the opposing side.

So for climate activists, the Scottish Government’s announcement today [7 May] that it will no longer pursue its plans to halve Air Passenger Duty by 50 per cent should be registered as a significant win, one that sets an important precedent for the future.

It’s worth reflecting on where this policy came from and how it was won by the aviation lobby, in order to better understand the significance of today’s U-turn.

APD was devolved under the Scotland Act 2016, but the genesis of the policy goes much further back than that – it was in the 2014 white paper on independence. In the white paper and two subsequent public consultations, the Scottish Government’s evidence base to justify the policy consisted of one report by York Aviation on behalf of Edinburgh Airport, and one report by PwC on behalf of a host of aviation firms. In other words, the Scottish Government had garnered zero independent evidence to back up their claim that a huge tax cut, which would see Finance Minister Derek Mackay’s austerity-stricken budget fall by an additional £150 million plus per year, was of great value to the people of Scotland.

READ MORE: Nicola Sturgeon challenged to abandon Air Departure Tax cut in the wake of new climate targets

The aviation lobby’s claim was that increased flights would boost Scotland’s tourism industry, and so the revenue lost from APD would be accrued indirectly through the proceeds of GDP growth. Even putting the environmental sustainability issue aside for one moment, the case for the APD cut falls down. As Common Weal head of policy & research Craig Dalzell showed, more flights works both ways: it also means more domestic tourists flying out of Scotland. Common Weal found that the hit to Scotland’s tourism industry from the loss of higher value domestic tourism would at least match the increase in revenue generated from increase foreign tourism. Of course to the aviation lobby, the net effect on Scotland’s economy was never what really mattered – whether tourists were coming or going, it all added up to more flights to them.

The logic of the arguments struggled to cut through against a well oiled lobbying machine, which seemed to have reach well into the corridors of power. A ‘stakeholder forum’ was set up by the Scottish Government to consult on the policy: it consisted entirely of aviation and airport companies, with one environmental representative who complained to CommonSpace that “everyone else in the room “was very much on the same page”.

But then the government stalled. The aviation lobby have been seething over the delay in the APD cut, suspecting that the publicly stated reason – concern over breaching EU state aid rules by giving preferential treatment to flights to and from the Highlands – was a useful way to avoid making a painful reduction to the Scottish Government’s budget at a time of austerity. 

So it was no surprise to see Derek Provan, chief executive of AGS Airports which owns and manages Aberdeen and Glasgow airports, react angrily to the Scottish Government’s announcement today, describing it as a “huge blow for our airports and for Scotland’s connectivity”.

REPORT: Air Departure Tax: A post-Brexit analysis

“Over the course of the past year alone, we have seen the withdrawal by airlines of almost 30 routes from Aberdeen and Glasgow airports because of Air Passenger Duty,” Provan spuriously claimed. 

Climate activists should be in no doubt: for the SNP to take the side of the environment lobby over the aviation lobby is no small thing. One SNP conference a couple of years ago was so decked out by the airport lobby I thought I’d walked into the wrong event. Their MPs abstained in a vote on the Heathrow expansion, despite their being little to no evidence of any economic benefit derived to Scotland. This is a serious turn of events, a move against powerful vested interests that the SNP leadership would not have contemplated until recently. 

And it sets a precedent which could have other powerful lobby’s looking over their shoulder: if the SNP can move against the aviation lobby, what about the oil & gas lobby? What about the car lobby? What about the volume housebuilders? What about the big landowners? What about the big six energy firms? When Sturgeon first indicated a possible re-think on APD at First Minister’s Questions last week, she said the climate emergency meant all policy positions had to be re-thought. That’s an opening for the climate movement to work out the best way it can score more victories, ones that don’t just prevent things from getting worse on carbon emissions, but start making things better.

READ MORE: Airport lobby floods consultation on multi-million tax cut proposals 

And why only accept APD remaining as it is presently? A debate should ensue now on whether a frequent flyer levy, or a aviation carbon tax, should be introduced to replace APD, which taxes everyone equally regardless of how many air miles they clock up, even though those clocking up by far the most are by far the wealthiest. 

Compared to the challenge the climate movement faces on a global scale, today’s victory may seem like a tiny step. But it could be a launch pad for much bigger things. 

Picture courtesy of David Farrer

COMMONSPACE FORUM 30 MAY: Climate change: How do we move from words to actions?