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Sun 5 December 2021

Exclusive data gathered by the Byline Intelligence Team raises more questions about the Government’s commitment to the green agenda

Government staff took almost half a million flights to meetings and events in 2019, the Byline Intelligence Team can reveal.

Analysis reveals that staff flew 453,028 times to carry out Government business in 2019, covering an estimated 214 million air miles. 

To put this into perspective, every driver in the UK would have to go car-free for two-and-a-half years to counteract the 32 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions produced by these flights.

The worst offender was the Ministry of Defence (MoD), with 83% of all Government flights taken by its staff. The department’s ministers and civil servants flew 378,261 times in 2019. 

Over the past decade, various Conservative leaders have attempted to rebrand the party’s environmental image. David Cameron promised the “greenest Government ever”. Eight years later, in 2018, Theresa May pledged to “leave the natural environment in a better state than we found it”. In his 2019 General Election victory speech, Boris Johnson announced his ambition to make the UK “the cleanest, greenest on Earth”.

However, these new findings raise questions about whether the Government’s rhetoric is simply hot air.

Nine Government departments disclosed the number of air miles travelled by their officials in Freedom of Information requests. Between them, staff travelled 13.7 million miles – the equivalent of 66 trips to the moon.

Alethea Warrington, a campaigner at climate charity Possible, told Byline Times: “For the Government to live up to its claims to lead on climate, they should reduce flights by Government staff and ensure that the default mode of transport is by train, not by plane.”

The findings come as the UK attempts to position itself as a world leader in the fight against climate change as politicians and activists meet in Glasgow for the COP26 summit.

In the run-up to the event, however, the Government has continued to back aviation – a large emitter of carbon emissions. The Chancellor slashed taxes on domestic flights in last week’s Budget, making it cheaper to fly between UK airports, while the Government’s climate spokesperson Allegra Stratton said that unlimited flying was “a personal choice” that would not be restricted.

The Telegraph reported that Boris Johnson plans to fly back to the capital from COP26 by private jet, rather than using a train. Recent research by Transport and Environment found that private jets are 50 times more polluting than trains.

What’s more, the Government’s attitude to air travel appears to be at odds with the public: a 2019 YouGov poll found that two-thirds of those surveyed supported limiting flights. 

The Byline Intelligence Team‘s analysis of Government departmental flights reveals that 11,003 were short-haul domestic flights in 2019 – or journeys that could have been made by train or car. Emissions produced by domestic flights are 70% higher than on long-haul routes. 

The total number of flights is also likely to be higher as five Government departments did not disclose the number of domestic flights taken by their staff.

“It’s unacceptable that the UK Government is racing in the wrong direction, encouraging an increase in domestic flights rather than supporting ways of travelling that are safer for the climate,” AletheaWarrington said.

There has been an attempt to reduce the amount of flights taken by Government staff since 2009, with the number of domestic flights reducing by 1.54% each year on average. 

A Government spokesman said: “Officials are required to make domestic and international trips to conduct Government business. We are setting the world’s most ambitious climate change target to reduce emissions by 78% by 2035 compared to 1990 levels. This follows the recommendation from the Independent Climate Change Committee and puts us on the right path to meet net zero by 2050.”

This article was updated at 10.45am on 4 November to acknowledge Craig Porter Garthford as co-author

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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