David Soskin, 2 October 2006
Should we be discouraging air travel in the interests of the planet? Is constraining our airline industry the real answer to the problem of global climate change? Over the past few years, the airlines, as well as the travel industry as a whole, have increasingly come under attack from several quarters – environmentalists, the media and so on – for their putative role in global warming. But some simple facts can show these claims to be inflated and often false.
The current contribution of aviation to global man-made carbon emissions is between 3 and 3.5 per cent – a very small percentage (Economist 8.6.2006). When seen as a proportion of the global transport sector as a whole (responsible for approximately 25 per cent of global emissions) it is clear that aviation emissions are less of a problem than road transport, for example.
The usual retort of environmentalists to this inconvenient fact is to claim that aviation is the fastest growing component within the transport sector. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted in 2005 that air passenger traffic would continue to grow at about 5 per cent per year ‘for at least the next 10 to 15 years’ (IPCC, quoted in Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research 2005). But the argument that this growth should be repressed by heavier taxation is absurd. Since when has it been good government policy to discourage growth in one of our most successful industries? Moreover, this is a global issue which cannot be solved by the unilateral action of the British government alone, or even by the European Union.
The British Air Transport Association highlights that air passenger duty alone already raises almost £1billion each year for the chancellor, and goes on to point out that ‘this is equivalent to one and a half times the carbon cost of the flights leaving UK airports’. The government categorise this as an ‘environment tax’. Yet the income is not used to address environmental impacts. Former environment minister Elliot Morley said last year that there was no evidence that a tax on aviation fuel would cut emissions anyway. Morley pointed out that ‘The evidence is that people will simply pay the tax and continue to travel and we won’t actually stop the growth’ (quoted in BBC News 21.9.2005). If the tax was increased to a rate that would actively discourage air travel, it would end up curtailing air travel for the majority of working people, who have benefited the most from the growth in low-cost airlines and cheaper long distance fares. In other words, it would be a grossly regressive tax regime, punishing millions who have come to enjoy the benefits of regular travel abroad for the first time, while still allowing the rich to travel freely.
Due to the international nature of the airline industry, increasing taxes on travel through UK airports would also be detrimental for UK airlines (and their supporting industries). Yet the impact of British taxation on worldwide air traffic would be small. In its 2003 White Paper The Future of Air Transport, the Department for Transport (DfT) stated that ‘a unilateral approach to fuel tax would not be effective’, as it would be an almost impossible task to ensure all countries applied equal taxes or charges. The result would be that airlines would simply move their business to other countries with more competitive tax regimes, routing their flights through different hubs. The result: the 200,000 people employed directly and the 600,000 employed indirectly by the British aviation industry would lose out (DfT 2003: Key facts). The DfT concluded that any action taken to tackle the environmental impacts of aviation must take into account ‘the effects on competitiveness of UK aviation and the impact on consumers’ (in terms of higher travel costs). ‘Air Passenger Duty is not the ideal measure for tackling the environmental impacts of aviation’ (DfT 2003: chapter 3, section 3.43).
So what should we be focusing on instead? Instead of attempting to curb aviation growth through taxation, it would be far more constructive to look at ways of making airline travel more efficient, most notably in two particular ways. Firstly, airplanes and their engines have great scope for improved efficiencies, such as better aerodynamics and enhanced fuel efficiency. The new Airbus A380 is a great leap forward in more efficient passenger flight: it carries more passengers over greater distances, which will allow the increased passenger numbers of today to fly, whilst helping to lessen the problems of congestion on the tarmac and in the air. At the same time it will help to reduce the number of takeoffs and landings (in terms of the total number of passengers flying), which is the single greatest use of fuel in any flight. The Advisory Council for Aeronautical Research in Europe and the DfT suggest that fuel efficiency gains arising from fleet replacement and technology improvements could lead to a 50 per cent reduction in CO2 emission by 2020 (DfT 2003: chapter 3, section 3.38).
But restricting emissions by curbing the growth of the industry will, of course, restrict the profits which airlines need in order to fund key research and development. Quite apart from the way in which taxation exacerbates inequality, taxes and charges could also reduce the rate at which the aviation industry develops new and more efficient technology. It would be far more constructive to encourage industry growth, which is in the interests of both passengers and the industry, as well as encouraging gains in efficiency. Without growing revenues and opportunities for profits, airlines will not invest in their fleets, which means fewer orders for the new and efficient planes from manufacturers like Boeing and Airbus. Last year Boeing spent $2.2billion on research and development (Boeing 2005). Taxing flights will indirectly result in companies such as Boeing and Airbus having less incentive and less money to carry out such vital research and development.
The number of flight hours could also be greatly reduced by better management of the Air Traffic Management (ATM) systems. ‘Approximately 350,000 flight hours a year in Europe are wasted due to ATM…delays’. A report by Sustainable Aviation indicated that better air traffic management could cut fuel usage by as much as 10 per cent (Sustainable Aviation 2005). IATA suggests a 12 per cent reduction could be achieved by routing aircraft on more optimal routes. Part of the problem in Europe is that the air traffic control network is administered by 35 different national bodies. IATA reckons the airways could be more efficiently managed by one organisation:
IATAhas already brokered deals to cut corners off international air lanes that twisted and turned to follow national borders or to avoid military-training areas. One recent example is a new route over China which will cut 30 minutes off flights between China and Europe, saving each year nearly 3,000 hours of flight time, 27,000 tonnes of fuel and over 84,000 tonnes of CO2 (Economist 8.6.2006).
There are many countries around the world which rely heavily on tourism for income. The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) reports that in 2004, the most recent year for which the organisation has complete data, international tourist arrivals reached 763 million worldwide, generating receipts of $623billion. Although European destinations received the lion’s share of this bonanza, tourism still represents a significant proportion of developing countries’ incomes – Thailand, for example, received over $10billion in tourist receipts in 2004. Indeed, tourism is the main source of foreign exchange earnings for at least 38 per cent of countries (UNWTO 2005). In terms of employment, the World Travel and Tourism Council has predicted that in 2006, travel and tourism will directly employ 76.7 million people worldwide. On looking at the wider picture of both direct and indirect employment from travel and tourism, this figure rises to 234.3 million jobs worldwide, which equates to 8.7 per cent of total world employment (WTTC 6.3.2006). When considering that in 2004, 43 per cent of tourists arrived at their destinations by air (UNWTO 2005) it becomes clear that depressing global aviation would be a grave blow to the world economy as a whole.
At the end of the day, the attacks on the airline industry create a false impression in the public mind that it is airplanes that are responsible for vast amounts of environmental damage. Willie Walsh, CEO of British Airways, points out that ‘while it is crucial that aviation takes action on emissions, the notion that flying is a selfish, anti-social activity that single-handedly threatens planetary catastrophe bears no relation to the evidence’ (quoted in AFX 4.7.2006). The problem, says the founder of EasyJet, Stelios Haji-Iaonnou, is that ‘aviation is high profile’, making it a much easier and more conspicuous target for lobbyists and single-issue campaigners. But as the facts show, airplanes’ contributions to global warming are relatively small. Far from being selfish or antisocial, air travel is helping to break down borders, promoting cross-cultural mixing and cooperation on a hitherto unseen scale.
David Soskin is chief executive, Cheapflights.co.uk
 Future Heathrow – Climate Change. See http://www.futureheathrow.co.uk/climate_change.htm
AFX (4.7.2006). ‘BA’s Walsh says EU must keep emissions trading simple’. Forbes.com.
BBC News (21.9.2005). Aviation “huge threat to CO2 aim”. BBC News website.
Boeing (2005). The Boeing Company 2005 Annual Report. The Boeing Company.
DfT (2003). The Future of Air Transport. 16 December 2003. Department for Transport.
Economist (8.6.2006). The sky’s the limit. The Economist
Sustainable Aviation (2005). A Strategy Towards Sustainable Development of UK Aviation. June 2005. Sustainable Aviation.
Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research (2005). Growth Scenarios for EU and UK Aviation: Contradictions with Climate Policy. June 2005. Friends of the Earth.
UNWTO (2005). Tourism Highlights 2005 Edition. United Nations World Tourism Organization.
WTTC (6.3.2006). ‘Global Travel and Tourism Exceeded US$6 Trillion in 2005; Strong Performance Expected in 2006’. World Travel and Tourism Council Press Release.
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