E-scooters at a crossroads
E-scooters at a crossroads

Aviation and the climate war – a terminal illness?

Words by:
May 17, 2019

Many across England – especially those in Merseyside and North London – have spent much of the last two weeks frantically looking at flights, scrolling up and down the exorbitant prices that might get them somewhere near their destination at some point near the first weekend of June. But as difficult as many might have found it to get to Madrid on that weekend, for something less than £1000, this could well be the future for all air travellers.

Focus on climate change has increased in recent months, with the Extinction Rebellion protests seemingly focusing minds both in the UK and abroad. The impact of these protests, whatever public perception is, has already been profound. There is no doubt reduction of carbon emissions will be a key factor of policy making for parties across the political spectrum. One of the key sectors this will affect is transport. And aviation will be under particular scrutiny.

Earlier in May the advisory Committee on Climate Change (CCC) said the UK’s planned increase in aviation would need to be curbed to restrict CO2 emissions. Having earlier set out plans to increase aviation when the 2050 target was a reduction of CO2 emissions 80 per cent. Since this was reduced to zero emissions, there have been calls for this target to be cut. The lack of meaningful progress in reducing of aeroplane emissions hasn’t helped.

While in many other areas of transport, significant leaps are being made to reduce the staggeringly high levels of emissions, aviation has been left behind. Although there have been some substantial innovations to reduce carbon emissions, and work continues to make this even more effective, advances in aviation technology still lag some way behind other sectors. Where electric cars and electric trains are now established across the world, aviation technology has made decidedly less dramatic steps.

There is an option available to airlines in order to mitigate the impact of flights – carbon offsetting. Raising prices per unit of CO2 emitted – ideally investing this into carbon offset schemes – is something that could be introduced. The positives are clear; by removing cheap flights there will be an inevitable drop off in air traffic and a reduction in carbon emissions. But there are significant negatives.

Chief among these is economic. The call for an increase in UK aviation is not without merit for Britain. As WA has seen first-hand with its work in the aviation sector, an increase in passengers has huge positive implications for industry and small businesses in the area surrounding the airport – with additional positive effects for the rest of the country. Just this week, annual statistics from Birmingham Airport showed a record number of passengers, following their Master Plan launch last year. An aviation strategy which prioritised regional airports could go a long way to redressing the economic regional imbalance across the country.

A further concern is the social impact of a significant hike in air fares. The UK already has the highest Air Passenger Duty (APD) in Europe – and a further rise in air fares based on carbon emissions could price lower income households out of travel abroad. More than denying families access to cheap package holidays (a much more serious issue than it might seem), denying a significant portion of the population the opportunity to see the world with a regressive tax. In a time of increasing isolationism and rising xenophobia, this is a potentially worrying trend.

This is not to mention the impact a global hike in air fares could have on developing countries, whose populations will be priced out of global travel to avert a crisis their country has largely not been responsible for. The idea of the developed world pulling up the ladder on the global south will sit uneasily in many quarters.

So what is to be done? First and foremost, and rather optimistically, necessity is the mother of invention. The fact there is a serious threat to the future of widely available air travel represents an opportunity for industry to come up with potentially profitable solutions. Whether that be through a zero emission aeroplane (unlikely in the short term) or a more substantial reduction in emissions in existing engine models, industry has the platform to make a decisive contribution.

This opportunity extends outside aviation as well. Improvements in rail and even road, cutting journey times as well as emissions, could significantly reduce air traffic without the need to stifle economic development. Of course, this would mean significant infrastructure investment from government (which if HS2 is the benchmark is unlikely to be smooth sailing), but industry can provide incremental solutions.

There is no mistaking: climate change is not going away. And governments will need to adopt increasingly “radical” proposals in order to address its causes. If aviation is to be a part of the future industry and government. Otherwise, opportunistic airlines and high prices will be the least of the worries for travellers from Mombasa to Montreal. And… Madrid.

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