Aviation carbon dioxide emissions, estimated to be about 2% of the global total, have been at the forefront of the climate change debate because of the sharp increase in cheap flights.1 Aviation is one of the fastest growing sectors of the global economy. It consumes significant amounts of fossil fuels and contributes to the growing problems of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. Its impact on climate change is more significant than its proportionate responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions, as emissions from international aviation are not included in the Kyoto Protocol.

Moreover, the overall impact of the aviation sector on climate change is in fact between 2 - 4 times greater than its carbon dioxide emissions alone, since it has significant non-CO2 emissions including nitrogen oxides and condensation trails. Any measures to reduce aviation the climate impact of aviation must therefore address these emissions as well.

The growth in demand for passenger and freight air travel is assisted by a generous taxation and fiscal support regime. Aviation is heavily subsidised by the taxpayer and by those who do not fly. The growth also presents policy makers with significant challenges. In the UK, official forecasts of passenger air travel over the next 30 years have assumed a tripling of passenger trips from 180 million to 500 million per annum (pa). This would require an increase in airport capacity equivalent to one extra Heathrow Airport every five years. The world’s airlines currently carry over 1.6 billion passengers and 30 million tonnes of freight annually (ICAO, 2003)2 and this is predicted to increase over the next 20 years as global consumption of goods and tourism expands.
The rate of growth of aviation is far outstripping the rate of technological progress and improvements in efficiency.

There remains a contradiction in UK and EU policy regarding aviation. On one side, the UK government is expanding airport capacity which will lead to more aviation growth and hence worsen the atmosphere. On the other hand, the UK 2003 Energy White Paper set a target of reducing UK carbon emissions by 60 per cent from 1990 level by 2050. If the government is to reduce its emissions, it will require a policy of reduction in carbon emissions which will be consistent with the goal of the Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC, 1992) and updated in the light of ongoing scientific understanding.

Recommendations:

The aviation climate change strategy for reducing greenhouse gases should include the following:3

• better air traffic control;
• improved fuel efficiency / technological improvements;
• efficient aerodynamic, airframe and engine design;
• a transfer of passenger demand to electronic media (e.g. video/teleconferencing);
• a transfer of passengers to rail over appropriate distances;
• full internalisation of external costs and consequent increases in the price of air travel in order to reduce the overall numbers of people flying;
• greater exploitation of the regional potential for food production to avoid long distance transport of food;
• surface access strategies to all airports to increase the use of public transport to at least 50 per cent of all trips.
• emissions charges, and exploring the role that a well designed aviation-only emissions trading system could play, with rigorous cap and full auctioning of permits.
• ending tax breaks enjoyed by the aviation industry
• abandoning airport expansion

The challenge of dealing with aviation in the 21st century is to bring aviation policy into line with overall climate objectives and contribute to a broader transformation of society. This transformation would be marked by a decline in the demand for transport, a move away from year on year increases in GDP/GNP and a much more diversified pattern of employment, tourism, social and cultural activities that do not depend on long distance travel and on the consumption of fossil fuels.

Notes

1. The Guardian, ‘And you thought air travel was bad for the climate …,’ 3 March 2007
2. International Civil Aviation Organization (2003) ICAO Journal, Volume 58, No. 6, Montreal, Canada.
3. Stockholm Environment Institute, ‘Aviation and Sustainability,’ (Stockholm Environment Institute, 2004), p.44