TCS Daily

Flights of Fancy

By Iain Murray - October 18, 2004 12:00 AM

The current British hysteria over global warming, which has seen party leaders Tony Blair, Michael Howard and Charles Kennedy all vying to see which one could sign up to the most of Greenpeace's economy-destroying agenda, has stalled in one important area. The UK's Department for Transport (where I used to work when it was simply a Department of Transport) has decided that if it is supposed to be for transport, it cannot in all conscience urge people not to fly.

That would be the result if one of the more foolish ideas of the green lobby were to be adopted. Aviation accounts for some three percent of all carbon dioxide emissions worldwide and is therefore a major contributor to concerns over global warming. However, with aviation increasingly important to the worldwide economy, and to Britain's economy in particular (according to the DfT, one fifth of all air passengers worldwide are going to or from a British airport), reducing the number of flights is an undesirable step to take.

The DfT has therefore proposed that passengers should be able to make voluntary payments to offset the extra carbon dioxide emitted during their flight. These schemes already exist. Future Forests, for instance, says that the bureaucrats who will be traveling to Buenos Aires for the annual Conference of the Parties (COP) of the Kyoto protocol will be emitting 2.45 extra tonnes of CO2 each during the round trip. The organization will plant 3 trees, which would soak up the extra gases, at a cost of £25.50 to assuage the civil servant's guilt. (This seems a mite expensive, as the US Forest Service will plant 10-15 seedlings for a suggested donation of only $10).

Voluntary schemes are unlikely to offset much of the carbon dioxide emitted from flights. Recent COP meetings and similar junkets have run voluntary programs to offset the bureaucrats' presence but have had surprisingly little take-up from what is presumably a well-informed audience. Much to the DfT's annoyance, pressure will doubtless grow for mandatory levies (although Tony Blair, to his credit, recently told a Liberal Democrat proposing such a tax that "This seems a policy to be advocated by individuals lacking the power to be held accountable.")

There is another scheme that might suppress aviation use even more effectively than a tax. The UK's Hadley Centre, a scientific organization, has proposed that everyone should have, in essence, a ration of carbon use, and people who need more will be able to buy the excess they need from people who don't need it. In practice, this will mean working families buying allowances from students, a nice little earner for the greens' biggest constituency, but it will also impact foreign travel considerably. For instance, the average Briton contributes about 11 tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere every year from her lifestyle. One trip to Australia to see the grandkids would take up almost 4 tons - about a third of the allowance. Even a trip from Birmingham to Cyprus for the Summer holiday would use up ¾ of a tonne, one fifteenth of all the carbon the typical Briton contributes each year. The individual carbon allowance would simply destroy the foreign holiday industry.

There are far more sensible ways to approach this problem than taking it out on Thomas Cook. We could, for instance, reduce the fuel burnt in each flight by scrapping certain air traffic control requirements, allowing pilots more freedom in choosing their own, more direct, flight plans. Estimates suggest that adopting such "free flight" provisions would reduce aviation emissions by 12 percent. This might require privatization of air traffic control authorities around Europe, something that is long overdue. Both Canada and New Zealand have shown that air traffic control services can be privatized without compromising safety.

Otherwise, we could encourage the airline industry to make further efficiency gains. The industry has already cut fuel consumption by nearly 50 percent since 1977. This reduction has been a result of investments in newer, more efficient aircraft, as well as basic operational changes such as lowering cruising speeds, taxiing with only one engine, and shutting down engines when takeoff is delayed by inclement weather. Investment and operational improvements are normally stimulated by highly competitive rather than highly regulatory environments. We might therefore look at further deregulation in the area.

Of course, these would be improvements whether or not there was a chance of dangerous global warming. Anathema though the suggestion is to the green lobby, we can actually reduce emissions and continue to enjoy our modern lifestyles without extra taxes. If only there was a political party in Britain willing to say that.

Iain Murray is a Senior Fellow at the free-market Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington DC. He worked at the Department of Transport from 1989 to 1996.


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