Flying in the face of climate change

Updated Thursday, 21st February 2008
Aviation comes under the spotlight in the quest to reduce CO2 emissions.

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With transatlantic air travel set to boom as the Open Skies policy sweeps away old restrictive practices, it seems that nothing stands in the way of our enjoying an ever increasing globe trotting lifestyle. Rising oil prices and climate change seem mere side issues, but are now moving towards aviation’s centre stage.

Until recently aviation has neatly sidestepped the environmental debate. Its CO2 emissions were excluded from the Kyoto agreement, international agreements banned taxing fuel, and aviation’s emissions were small compared to other sectors. But now the sheer growth in air travel has brought aviation into the environmental spotlight. Aviation is the fastest growing source of CO2 emissions, having doubled since 1990 and expected to double again by 2020.

"the sheer growth in air travel has brought aviation into the environmental spotlight"

Aviation can no longer be ignored by national and international policymakers, so a pretty big political battle is in the offing that could well change the economics and role of air travel in our lives.

To date environmental actions have been limited. Because international air travel treaties ban fuel tax on international flights, the only real price measure has been on passenger departures (e.g. the UK’s Air Passenger Duty, varying from £10-£80). From 2009 this will shift to a tax on the operator, which'll be passed on in fares. An elephant, part of a protest against Manchester Airport expansion plans A protest against plans to expand Manchester Airport

Of more significance are the European Commission plans for aviation to join the EU carbon trading programme from 2012. Carbon trading is a major plank in the EU’s strategy to control CO2 emissions. Major energy users are given a CO2 quota. If they emit more they have to buy permits, or can sell surplus permits to others. Total emissions are capped and then cut back over time.

The EU proposal is for aviation to be capped at its average emissions for 2004-2006. If an airline wishes to exceed its quota, it'd need to purchase carbon permits from any other sector with a surplus. So, if airlines expand their services, as is anticipated, they'll have a major new cost to pass on in fares.

More speculatively, ideas are emerging for personal carbon trading, whereby individuals would be allocated an annual carbon allowance, which would probably allow for only about 1,000 air miles per year. This may sound draconian, and may never happen, but what is now becoming clear that, like it or not, we're going to be forced to face up to the carbon reality of air travel.







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