Bookmark and ShareHelen Kersley is a researcher on nef’s Valuing What Matters team.

In the aftermath of the suspension of air travel as a result of volcanic ash, the economic implications are likely to be considered for some time after everyone is safely home.  Clearly, an abrupt, chaotic and unexpected disruption to life and work on this scale is highly costly to the economy and to society.  But as we weigh up the costs of this event, we should take the opportunity for an open, broad-minded look at the true social value of large-scale air travel, and the trade-offs including risks, that we cannot avoid.

Too often, we are presented with the purely economic costs and benefits of an activity.  These may tell us that it is cheaper to import our apples than grow them in Kent, or to spend the weekend in Turkey rather than Devon.  But too little are the economic factors balanced alongside the social and environmental impacts, or ‘spill-over’ effects, which may be much harder to measure but are often just as important to our lives and to society.  The biggest environmental cost of air travel is the intensity of its greenhouse gas emissions.  We are just beginning to acknowledge that no longer can air travel emit these gases for free.  If we have to pay for them, then higher fares will dampen demand and reduce the scale of the problem.

Wrapped up with air travel are important and complex issues around food security and support for overseas development.  On the former, just taking the case of apples, for example, the current prospect of shortages in the shops highlights the loss of our own capacity to grow them as a result of purely commercial pressures.  This is not about nostalgia.  It’s about jobs, skills, well-being and the environment in the UK but also abroad.  It may be that if we weigh the economic, environmental and social impacts of importing apples, it still makes sense to do so.  The point is that unless we try to capture and weigh-up all the factors we cannot be sure if we are creating value for society or destroying it.

The same process of transparency needs to apply to sourcing produce from low-income countries, such as cut-flowers from Kenya.  A comparison of the emissions costs of growing flowers in hothouses in Europe versus flying them in from Africa is one consideration.  But there are complex development issues too, around the potential for securing higher incomes for farmers and other workers, at the same time as ensuring security of affordable food for local populations. A holistic analysis of material outcomes can help ensure that environmental and developmental objectives are heeded.

Quite topically, our latest report is the result of our 9-month independent study of the costs and benefits of adding a third runway to Heathrow airport.   Contrary to the Department for Transport’s cost-benefit analysis a year ago, we found that if you include the key community impacts, such as extra noise, air pollution and traffic congestion, at a level that is commensurate with people’s lived experience of these disturbances, then a third runway will cost the UK far more than it will return to it in economic benefits.

Four years ago, Lord Stern cautioned government against locking into new carbon-intensive infrastructure like additional runways.  We may learn from latest events that locking ourselves further into air dependency carries too high a risk economically as well as environmentally.

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