The UK’s Conservative Party received £651,000 from the aviation industry between April and June this year amid doubts over the government’s commitment to cutting the sector’s emissions.
DeSmog analysis of official records showed the gifts included £515,000 from Christopher Harborne, the owner of a major aviation fuel company who donated millions to Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party in the run-up to the 2019 general election.
The boss of UK budget airline Jet2 and the owner of four English regional airports also contributed.
Green MP Caroline Lucas said the findings showed the Conservatives were “in the pockets of an industry responsible for vast and increasing quantities of greenhouse gas emissions”.
The data showed aviation was the third largest sector by donations, with finance contributing £1.8 million and real estate £717,000 during the same period.
Campaigners said the aviation-related donations looked like “sweeteners” from a sector that has largely escaped regulation over its climate impacts, and suggested the money would have been better invested in efforts to cut the companies’ emissions.
The Conservative government supports the expansion of numerous airports around the country, despite its expert climate advisors warning that no “net” airport expansion can occur if the country’s 2050 net zero target is to be met, unless the sector is “on track to sufficiently outperform” its current trajectory.
In July, the government announced its “Jet Zero Strategy’, which aims to cut UK aviation emissions to net-zero by 2050 and allow travellers to fly “guilt-free”.
The policy, which backs further aviation growth, was dismissed as “pure greenwash” by environmental groups, which cast doubt on the viability of the technologies and solutions proposed. In the same month, the High Court ruled that the government’s net zero strategy did not meet its obligations under the 2008 Climate Change Act.
Former Chancellor Rishi Sunak was criticised by climate campaigners last year for halving taxes on domestic flights, a move forecast to result in up to 400,000 extra journeys being made every year.
Sunak defended the tax cut, announced shortly before the UK hosted the COP26 UN climate negotiations, by saying it supported regional airports.
Aviation emissions accounted for eight percent of the UK’s annual greenhouse gas emissions before the pandemic, according to the official figures.
The largest of the aviation donations, published by the Electoral Commission, came from Harborne, who donated half a million in May and then a further £15,000 the following month.
According to his LinkedIn profile, Harborne owns AML Global, an aviation fuel supplier that operates in “over 1,200 locations worldwide”. He is also the CEO of Sheriff Global Group, which trades private jets, according to Politics Home.
Harborne, who uses a different identity while working from Thailand, where he is based, has a record of supporting right-wing politicians hostile to action on climate change.
In 2019, Harborne donated £9.7 million to Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party – now Reform UK – and earlier this year paid for a £2,000 ticket to a Tory fundraising gala on behalf of Steve Baker, a trustee of the UK’s principal climate science denial group until his appointment last week as a Northern Ireland minister.
Harborne has donated over £15 million to the Conservatives and Reform UK in total since 2001, with the majority made since 2018.
Another notable aviation donor was the Rigby Group, which gave £25,000 in April, having donated £200,000 to the Conservative Party since 2017.
The group owns Bournemouth, Coventry, Exeter and Norwich regional airports, and operates Solent Airport Daedalus, an aerodrome in Hampshire, on behalf of its owners.
The firm was founded by entrepreneur Sir Peter Rigby, who has a combined worth, along with his two sons who also run the company, of £804 million, according to this year’s Sunday Times Rich List.
Phillip Meeson, executive chairman of budget airline Jet2, gave a £5,000 cash donation and £3,900 recorded as “auction prizes”.
Bridgemere, a group of companies owned by construction magnate Steve Morgan that advertises a private jet for charter on its website as part of its business, donated £62,500 in May.
The Conservatives also received £33,743 from Knaresborough Aviation LLP, a Yorkshire-based airline.
A donation worth £5,405 from Boeing was also recorded by Tobias Ellwood, a Tory MP who chairs parliament’s defence select committee, for a “fact finding visit to aerospace defence plants”.
‘Not a Good Look’
Lucas, the Green MP, said: “Government aviation policy in recent months has been nothing short of pie-in-the-sky greenwash, and now we know why – the Tory Party is in the pockets of an industry responsible for vast and increasing quantities of greenhouse gas emissions.
“The climate emergency can’t be tackled without addressing aviation emissions. If this Government refuses to act, by adopting policies such as a frequent flyer levy so those who fly the most pay the most, it needs to make way for one which will,” she added.
Cait Hewitt, deputy director at the Aviation Environment Federation, said: “The aviation industry is – to put it mildly – not in a good place in terms of reaching net zero by 2050, and this hasn’t been helped by the fact that it’s managed, till now, to avoid most of the climate policies and emissions pricing strategies in place for other sectors.
“Getting over the technological barriers to delivering zero carbon flying and carbon removal technologies is going to need massive private investment, as well as government action to make sure this is actually delivered,” Hewitt said.
“At a time when the aviation sector is looking for government approval of airport expansion, and finance for alternative fuels, these ‘donations’ can’t help looking like sweeteners. It would be good if aviation businesses started putting their profits into decarbonisation rather than giving handouts to political parties.”
Matt Finch, UK policy manager at Transport & Environment, said: “This is not a good look for the Tories. The Jet Zero Strategy was not a good strategy – UK aviation was happy with it, as it essentially meant business as usual for them. Whilst it’s hard to confirm that these donations influenced ministers’ decisions, the suspicion will always be there.”
A Conservative party spokesperson told DeSmog: “Government policy is in no way influenced by party donations – they are entirely separate.
“Donations to the Conservative Party are properly and transparently declared to the Electoral Commission, openly published by them, and comply fully with the law.”
Christopher Harborne and the Rigby Group were contacted for comment.
Additional research by Michaela Herrmann.