TCS Daily


Flying More to Help the Climate?

By Evan Sparks - December 5, 2007 12:00 AM

Vatican City is the latest to join the green crusade, recently announcing that it is becoming the world's first carbon-neutral country. Pope Benedict XVI will reportedly identify climate change action as a moral obligation in an encyclical next spring. But there's one area in which the Vatican is increasing its carbon footprint—the sky. The Vatican has launched a low-cost airline service for pilgrims to Roman Catholic shrines. In Europe today—and in the United States tomorrow—air travel is where the battle for climate action is happening.

In Britain, where the environmentalist opposition to air travel is strongest, groups with names like Plane Stupid, LowFlyZone, and the Campaign for Better Transport argue that flying "physically and spiritually" disconnects us from the earth and those who live in it.

"Aviation is mostly unnecessary," insists Plane Stupid. This motley crew of activists teamed up with nearby homeowners worried about noise and held a mass protest near London's Heathrow Airport in August to fight the planned—and needed—third runway there.

One of the reasons the issue has raised its head in Europe is the dramatic growth of super-cheap air travel there. This has made it possible for middle-class Brits to own summer homes in Bulgaria, for migrant Eastern Europeans to work in dynamic cities like Dublin, and for average families to travel farther on vacation than when air travel was regulated and fares were steep.

Europe has been transformed by the strangely named but low cost easyJet, Wizzair, and Ryanair. In the United States budget airlines and leaner, post-bankruptcy network airlines have also kept fares low despite high fuel prices. This has driven substantial passenger growth.

All that flying -- here, in Europe, and all over the world -- has left a footprint. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that three percent of manmade greenhouse gas emissions come from aviation. That's not very much, which is in part a testament to the dramatic improvements in fuel efficiency over recent decades.

What's more, aviation is projected to represent only 5 percent of the manmade contribution to climate change by 2050, even though demand for air travel is projected to rise by six to ten times.

All that said, it would still be desirable to reduce aviation emissions. There are two ways to do this: less flying or new technology.

Britain has gone the way of less flying. In 2006, then-chancellor and now-Prime Minister Gordon Brown doubled a per-passenger travel tax, increasing round-trip costs by as much as £160. The higher charge has driven many travelers away from British airports.

Not to be outdone, opposition leader David Cameron suggested that each family in Britain be able to take one trip per year at current tax rates, with increasingly steep taxes applied to subsequent flights—an elitist proposition that ignores how cheap flights have radically altered travel for the middle and working classes.

An expensive "green tax" is under consideration in the Netherlands, too, but this tax is really more of a revenue generator than an environmental measure, since it only applies to passengers originating or arriving in Holland, not to the equally emitting but economically vital connecting itineraries that have made Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport the fourth-busiest in Europe.

Inevitably, getting people to fly less means raising costs, whether through a direct tax on flights or fuel, or indirectly through an emissions trading system that would prevent new airlines from getting off the ground.

The only other way to drive down emissions is through new technologies, some of which were promoted at September's International Civil Aviation Organization assembly in Montreal.

But it's critical to remember that profit helps drive innovation. Only if aerospace companies are profitable can they fund the arduous and expensive aircraft development process. Profitable manufacturers depend on profitable airlines. Industries that rely on speedy air travel—and few don't—depend on profitable airlines, too. Just as the U.S. airline industry is regaining a measure of financial health, why would we want to cut flying and impose higher costs? As for "green taxes" like Britain's, some experts say that they are actually counterproductive, since they funnel money not to profits—a down payment on innovative, low-emission technologies—but to government coffers.

That's a recipe for no new technology and higher costs—with no way out of aviation's climate impact. The tradeoff between climate change and a robust airline industry can be solved by aviation innovation. Perhaps the pope has it right—start an airline and drive the technological transformations that can fight climate change.

Evan Sparks, an editorial assistant at the American Enterprise Institute, blogs about aviation policy at EvanSparks.com.


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