Aviation boom is no boon for climate

Published: Tuesday 15 May 2007

Air travel is the preserve of a mere 5 per cent of the world's population, but this tiny minority's behaviour affects the poorest--who will probably never fly. Aviation has enormous repercussions on climate change. Let's look at a few figures. An Air France/klm report of 2005-2006 reckons it takes 3.1 litres of kerosene to fly one person for 100 km. This means 10 kg of co2 emissions, as per accepted calculations. So, a person flying a distance of 10,000 km (two ways) ends up adding more than a tonne of co2.

A 2006 report, Clearing the Air, by the Brussels-based European Federation for Transport and Environment and by Climate Action Network (can), Europe, estimates that the contribution of the civil aviation sector--passenger and freight--to climate change is 4 to 9 per cent.It emits 600 million tonnes of co2. But far more dangerous is the total climate impact of nox emission: it's two to five times greater than that of co2 alone.
Kyoto immunity Since 1990--the reference year of the Kyoto Protocol--aviation emissions from Europe have grown by 83 per cent. In spite of its enormous impact on climate change, the sector does not have any Kyoto Protocol obligation. Aviation fuel receives tax exemptions and air tickets come with vat (value-added tax) exemptions in many countries. Every aspect of aviation--from aircraft construction to running airports--is subsidised: in the European Union (eu), this amounts to an astronomical 45 billion euros (more than us $61 billion per year. These privileges--allowed by the Chicago Convention of 1944 and bilateral agreements--contrive to bring down the price of air travel. Today there are chartered flights for western tourism and even short-haul, low-cost flights costing just a dollar. In Europe, 45 per cent of all flights cover less than 500 km (and 75 per cent less than 1,000 km). They could easily be replaced by trains or water-faring vessels--these are 10 times more benign for the climate than aircrafts. Moreover, perishable goods--from flowers to apples and from tomato sauce to fish--are regularly transported over long distances by air.

The issue doesn't receive much attention from environmental activists (associations in the uk and European aviation campaigners are honourable exceptions). They are as quick to find an ethical justification for being frequent flyers as managers and politicians--30 per cent of the trips are indeed for work, and not tourism.
Down to Earth Silver lining Thanks to the recent debate on climate change, there are chances that matters might improve in Europe. "People should stop thinking that flying cheaply is a human right," says Caroline Lucas, a Green member of the European Parliament from the uk. She is the author of a resolution that was passed last year by the European parliament with an overwhelming majority, calling for the inclusion of the aviation sector in the Kyoto Protocol's purview.

The resolution also demanded that taxes be levied on aviation fuel and that other privileges given to the sector be abolished. The European Commission has prepared the blueprint for a directive to bring aviation-related activities within the ambit of the emissions trading regime.
The opposition But the European anti-aviation campaigners who met in Brussels on March 26 and 27--arriving by train from France, Italy, the uk, Germany, Netherlands--are not convinced. Emissions trading is not the best way to address the climatic and pollution impacts of the aviation sector, they believe. Aviation could easily find an escape route by buying emission permits from other sectors, without really committing to emission reduction.

Therefore, the campaigners have demanded more stringent rules. Among them is taxing aviation fuel for intra-European and domestic flights (while for non intra-eu flights and non-eu carriers there should be a revision of international agreements). This will discourage low cost flying, favouring its replacement by trains and will lead to replacement of business--and activists'--flights by teleconferences. The tax (some countries already have it for domestic flights though at a very low rate) could be 300 euros per tonne (around us $400) of kerosene. Ticket taxation could be another good though less significant measure.

There is also an urgent need to stop all public subsidies to the aviation sector. The campaigners have also demanded a ban on night flights and called aviation authorities to respect who prescriptions on air quality. But till short-haul flights are banned and an individual quota of co2 is implemented, frequent flyers--at the very least--should be seen as eco-unfriendly.

Marinella Correggia is an environmental activist, journalist, author and aviation campaigner

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