Climate Change

Published on December 8th, 2009 | by Jennifer Lance


Climate Change Goals Target Cheap Airline Fares

With all eyes on Copenhagen hoping the world’s leaders will create a “meaningful and binding accord” on climate change, countries that have already set targets are realizing the harsh reality of how aviation affects these goals. As David Suzuki explains, “Although aviation is a relatively small industry, it has a disproportionately large impact on the climate system. It presently accounts for 4-9% of the total climate change impact of human activity.” What is most concerning to climate and aviation experts is the rapid increase in air travel and the consumer demand for cheaper flights.  These cheap fares do not reflect the “true environmental costs of flying” and “may turn out to be costly in terms of climate change”. 

Photo by emrankAir travel emissions stand in the way of climate change goals

Air travel emissions stand in the way of climate change goals

The British Committee on Climate Change has warned the “era of cheap flights” is over.  Expecting the demand for air traffic to increase 200% over the next 40 years without intervention, the committee believes tough action needs to be taken in the form of heavy taxes and bans on airport expansions. The Daily Mail explains:

Air travel accounts for around 6 to 8 per cent of Britain’s greenhouse gas emissions.  But as demand for flights grow  –  and the UK switches to more renewable and nuclear energy in the next decade  –  carbon dioxide from aircraft could account for a quarter of all Britain’s emissions within 40 years.The committee says the number of flights is forecast to treble from the current 230million passengers a year to nearly 700million by 2050 if the Government takes no action.

The committee believes the only way the UK can meet current goals for reducing emissions is by limiting passenger growth to 60%. Specifically, aviation emissions in 2050 must not exceed the levels of 2005.  Higher airline fares and taxes are one way to curb travel, as well as limiting airport expansion plans.  According to the Guardian, there are four ways the Committee on Climate Change suggests to curb air travel:

1 A carbon tax on flights, which could be imposed after airlines join the European Union emissions trading scheme in 2012. The scheme alone is likely to force up fares because airlines will have to pay for their greenhouse gas emissions, but the committee says that is not enough.

2 Limiting runway growth to a select number of airports, possibly Heathrow, Stansted and Edinburgh.

3 Restrictions on take-off and landing slots at airports.

4 Setting out a new growth strategy for UK airports in a national policy statement.

Increasing the fuel efficiency of airplanes and the use of biofuels will help reduce carbon dioxide emissions, but European Union scientists “doubt on whether biofuels could ever be produced sustainably in significant quantities”.  In fact, the scientists found that “large-scale” biofuels use emits nitrous-oxide, which is “about 270 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas and is released through use of fertilisers to grow biofuel crops.”  Coupled with the destruction of virgin forests to clear land to grow biofuels, this is certainly not the perfect solution for the aviation industry.

If we want to get serious about climate change, we will have to give up our cheap fares and limit our air travel vacations and business trips.  Flying “has a greater climate impact per passenger kilometer” than any other mode of transportation.  Increases in fuel efficiency are expected to be “eclipsed by the projected growth in the industry”. Without government regulation, the airline industry will make climate goals unachievable.

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