Air travel and climate change

Air travel is a beast for the climate change file, one that is going to be difficult to tackle as we move ahead. For consumers, it is  deeply entrenched as a means of getting around the globe, and may be particularly hard to reduce because it would require strong international collaboration. In Monbiot’s book Heat, he argues we need to reduce air travel by 90%, soon, in order for us to have a fighting chance. But governments looking at the problem tend to focus on domestic emissions and leave international flights off the table (even though they have to land somewhere).

I’m somewhat of a hypocrite on this, having just spent my recent tax cuts in Mexico. But I look at it this way: either we all pull together or we are doomed. It’s a classic prisoner’s dilemma. You are going to have a tough time convincing some people to make sacrifices if others merrily go along as usual. The problem is that there is some lumpiness to air travel: even if I skip a flight and the plane goes one seat empty, not an ounce of carbon has been saved; alternatively, my “sacrifice” just opens up a spot for someone else. This is about shared sacrifice, not individual choices on the margin, and it is going to be a tough sell to get Western consumers to stop.

From The Independent, we learn why we may be doomed:

Open skies pact ‘will worsen climate change’

Plans to open up transatlantic aviation and generate an extra 26 million air passengers over five years will undermine Europe’s push to combat climate change, campaigners warned yesterday.




An “open skies” agreement, due to be agreed by EU transport ministers today, is being hailed as a revolution by officials who say it will deliver more competition and lower fares.

But environmental groups say the increased air traffic generated by the measure will write off all the benefits expected from separate plans to “green” aviation by bringing airlines into the EU’s carbon emissions trading scheme.

Coming just days after EU leaders announced ambitious plans to combat global warming, the row over “open skies” has prompted questions about the EU’s commitment to the environment. Under the deal, any EU airline will be able to fly to the US from any part of Europe ushering in a dramatic change in the structure of transatlantic aviation.

Britain is unhappy with the blueprint because it will open Heathrow up to more competition without gaining a key concession sought by European operators: the lifting of restrictions on foreign ownership of American carriers.

The UK currently accounts for 40 per cent of the transatlantic aviation, mainly because of Heathrow. Only two UK and two US airlines can operate this lucrative route. Italy, which wants to privatise Alitalia, also has reservations over “open skies” but most diplomats expect the deal to go through at today’s meeting.

According to the European Commission, the plan will create 72,000 jobs on both sides of the Atlantic. Over a period of five years 26 million additional passengers would fly across the Atlantic. By the fifth year the market would have grown by a third creating 9.6 million more travellers.

The deal would end a situation under which current aviation arrangements are in legal limbo following a ruling in the European Court of Justice.

British Airways, one of Heathrow’s transatlantic operators, would lose out. But bmi (formerly British Midland) and foreign airlines such as Aer Lingus could be able to use their existing slots at London’s main airport for flights to the US.

Freight carriers from the US would be able to fly to the UK and then on to China, something currently prohibited.

The European Federation for Transport and the Environment pressure group said that, based on the Commission calculations, “This will lead to some 3.5 million tonnes of extra CO2 emissions annually. This is about as much as the expected reduction of aviation emissions resulting from the inclusion of aviation into the European emissions trading system”. It also argued that the deal makes it difficult to change the current system under which kerosene is exempt from taxation.

Caroline Lucas, a Green MEP, argued: “This ‘Open Skies’ agreement risks undermining all the EU’s effort on tackling climate change, and must be rejected – at least until both the EU and US have adopted a tough package of measures to reduce the sector’s emissions year-on-year, such as establishing an aviation-only emissions trading scheme with fixed, annually reducing emissions caps.

“It is simply incompatible to be encouraging a large increase in the number of flights between the EU and US and cutting greenhouse gas emissions sufficiently to either prevent the worst impacts of climate change, or even meet the emissions reductions targets agreed at the Brussels summit this month.”

But Barbara Helfferich, the environment spokeswoman for the European Commission, said: “All airlines will be included in the emissions trading system, whether European or non-EU. The more flights there are, the higher the cost of carbon will be for the carriers. We are confident that this will oblige the airlines to contribute their fair share to fighting climate change.”

In 2004, 47.4 million passengers flew between the EU and the US. The Commission report, written by the consultants Booz Allen Hamilton, argues that, with open skies, “airline fares would fall, new jobs would be created to serve the new passengers, there is greater consumer choice for airports and airlines and economic growth is stimulated. Over the course of the five years these effects generate a consumer surplus of between €6.4bn (£4.4bn) and €12bn.”

Air travel now…

* EU-US traffic at 47.4 million passengers per year, though this is lower than its peak year in 2000.

* US air transport industry carried more than 712 million passengers in 2004, of whom just 9 per cent flew internationally.

* EU industry carried 650 million people, of whom more than one third were travelling outside Europe.

* Together the EU and US account for more than half of all global scheduled traffic.

… and in the future

* An extra 26 million transatlantic passengers over five years.

* Benefits worth €6.4bn-€12bn (£4.3bn-£8.2bn).

* Additional 72,000 jobs created in the EU and US over five years.

* An extra 100,000-170,000 extra tonnes of freight generated.

* Gains in savings and productivity leading to lower fares.

* More opportunities for airlines to pool resources.


  • Yes, a “tough sell” indeed! I find it ironic, though understandable Marc, that you use the language of buying and selling and refer to citizens as consumers, even as you discuss the urgent environmental need to reduce air travel. Commercial language increasingly invades and corrupts political speech making it harder for all of us to think clearly.

  • True enough, especially when “consumer” is used in the context of health care — that one drives me nuts. The use of the term “consumer” here though was deliberate because it is how we tend to view air travel, as just another thing to consume. As we move forward we need to shift that to what our obligations are as citizens, as you point out.

  • Thanks for taking the time to reply Marc. I should have made it clearer that my initial comment applied specifically to the following sentence: “This is about shared sacrifice, not individual choices on the margin, and it is going to be a tough sell to get Western consumers to stop.” The first part of your sentence is beautifully clear: “shared sacrifice” (the collective political realm) versus “individual choices on the margin” (the realm of personal consumption). Perfect. But you betray your own thought by slipping into the commercial language of selling and consumption as though the real answer to reducing air travel is not political discussion and debate but a tough sell designed to persuade consumers to stop flying so much. I fear that tough sells have taken up so much political space there’s almost no room left for reasoned discussion and debate. I’m glad we agree on the need to shift the terms of address from consumers to citizens — if only our language will let us.

  • Air travel is a large contributer to CO2 in the atmosphere, but it is nothing compared to shipping: “The annual emissions from shipping range between 600 and 800m tonnes of carbon dioxide, or up to 5% of the global total. This is nearly double Britain’s total emissions and more than all African countries combined.” -Institute for Physics and Atmosphere, March 2007

    While we may be able to eventually reduce or even stop completely the CO2 emmissions from shipping using new technology, there seems to be no immediate solution to the pollution problem caused by air travel.

    Voluntary offset payments don’t solve the problem, but make they do allow air travelers to feel better.

    High speed electric trains, following the Euopean model, would be better, and Canada should start building them now.

    An aside to this is the evidence that global DIMMING is actually created by large and frequent jets which helps cool the globe by disbursing water vapor into the atmosphere. This cools the planet. This was noticed when after 9/11 the planes were all grounded and the surface temperature rose dramatically, while no other factors were apparent. The evidence is based only on the one incident, but many scientists are convinced of it.

    I’m definitely not advocating for jet travel to solve the global warming problem, but it does remind us that there is still a lot of science to be discovered around the global warming issue.

    Watch for the global dimming issue to be raised by the corporate nay-sayers – “Jet travel HELPS the environment!”. They will do or say anything to maintain market share.

    Anyway, let’s focus on the possible: get the emmissions from shipping under control. The air travel problem will take much longer to solve.

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