Boris Johnson has been criticised for taking a short helicopter flight from London to the West Midlands to promote a local bike hire scheme, despite the train from London taking just more than two hours.
Critics said the flight was “completely unnecessary” and cast doubt on the sincerity of the prime minister’s pledges to fight the climate crisis. Air travel produces far more global-heating emissions than other modes of transport.
Johnson took the 50-minute helicopter ride in a Sikorsky S-76C on 5 May, departing from north-west London and landing at Wolverhampton Halfpenny Green airport.
Johnson then travelled to Stourbridge to meet Andy Street, who was subsequently re-elected as West Midlands metro mayor. “Great to show the PM around Stourbridge by bike,” Street tweeted.
Johnson and Street used bicycles from the West Midlands Cycle Hire scheme, which is described as “a fun, healthy and sustainable way to travel”.
The helicopter Johnson flew in is registered to the digger manufacturer JCB, whose chairman is the billionaire Tory peer and frequent donor to the Conservative party Lord Bamford. It has also been reported that Johnson appeared to use a private jet registered to JCB for flights to Wales and Northumberland during the recent local election campaign.
The prime minister also used a helicopter to travel to Wolverhampton on 19 April, landing at a local golf club. During the visit, he took the controls of a tram, another low-carbon travel option, at the West Midlands Metro depot in Wednesbury.
Johnson has been criticised before for flying short distances. In December 2019, while campaigning for the general election, he took a private jet from Doncaster to Darlington, which are less than one hour apart by train.
Leo Murray, a co-director at the climate charity Possible, said: “The prime minister’s decision to travel by helicopter and private jet for election campaigns on trips that could easily have been made by train is very troubling. He either does not understand the implications of the climate targets he has signed Britain up to, or he is not serious about doing what needs to be done to meet them.”
“Imagine the positive message [travelling by train] would have sent to the British public about public transport use post-Covid,” Murray said. “It really casts doubt on the sincerity of the recent, very welcome messages from the government about the climate crisis.”
Johnson has made action on the climate crisis a central part of his agenda, promising green jobs to “level up” deprived areas. Boosting zero-emission public transport was part of the 10-point plan he launched in November.
The prime minister also wants the UK to set an ambitious example to other nations as the UK prepares to host the UN’s crucial Cop26 climate summit in November. He told world leaders in April: “The UK has been able to cut our own CO2 emissions by about 42% on 1990 levels and we’ve seen our economy grow by 73%. You can do both at once. ‘Cake have eat’ is my message to you.”
On 6 May, Johnson told other world leaders that the climate crisis would be “right at the heart of the agenda” of the G7 summit in Cornwall this summer, which he said would be “completely carbon neutral”.
Johnson was frequently sceptical about the climate crisis before becoming prime minister. For example, in a newspaper column in December 2015, he promoted the views of the climate crisis sceptic Piers Corbyn: “Piers thinks that whatever the role of humanity in affecting the temperature of the planet, that role is pitifully trivial next to the sun … There may be all kinds of reasons why I was sweating at ping-pong – but they don’t include global warming.” The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has long been clear that 100% of global heating over the past 60 years is caused by humans.
“Boris Johnson taking a private helicopter from London to the West Midlands is clearly completely unnecessary,” said Nadia Whittome, the Labour MP for Nottingham East and member of the environmental audit select committee.
“But beyond the prime minister’s personal actions, it’s the government’s hypocrisy on spending and legislating to tackle the climate crisis that really concerns me,” she said. “Johnson has said he wants to cut taxes on domestic flights. It shouldn’t be cheaper to fly in the UK than to take the train, but our overpriced, privatised rail system means that it often it is.”
In France domestic flights that are easily replaced by rail travel are being banned.
Ben Bradshaw, the Labour MP for Exeter and a member of the transport select committee, said: “If Boris Johnson wants to convince people he is committed to protecting our environment, this is not the way to do it.”
In 2006 David Cameron, then the Conservative party leader, was criticised over his commitment to green issues when it was revealed that he cycled to work but with his car following behind with his briefcase.
A Conservative party spokesman said: “It has long been the case that party leaders make visits across the country during election campaigns using a wide variety of transport. Such visits are an important part of the democratic process, so politicians, including prime ministers, can visit as many places as possible within time constraints.
“Under this Conservative government, we’ve reduced carbon emissions faster than any other G7 country, are producing a record amount of electricity from renewable sources and are a world leader in offshore wind.”
Additional reporting by Niko Kommenda and Jessica Murray