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Responsible Aviation: challenging the aviation industry.

July 29, 2009
Harold Goodwin
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The discussions about aviation emissions are ‘hotting up’ as negotiations begin ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December. The aviation industry is under increasing pressure to step up and make its contribution to the essential reductions in global emissions. The G8 in July pressed the aviation sector to make their contribution outside of the national carbon account targets.

The aviation industry is the “first global industry to commit to a carbon-neutral growth target by 2020”. Yet the strategy for achieving this seems to be based on the vain hope for some magic, non-polluting fuel. Neither International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), nor International Air Transport Association (IATA) can be held accountable for achieving this target. It is little more than wishful thinking, and is technically irresponsible – the industry cannot be held to account for failing to achieve this target. It is difficult to trust in its implementation when there is no mechanism in place to assure progress.

This is not to argue that all airlines are irresponsible – some airlines are taking quite radical steps to reduce their carbon impact per passenger mile flown. They are saving money by increasing fuel efficiency per passenger mile, and the increase in fuel prices have doubtless contributed to driving progress.

This pressure has reduced significantly as fuel costs have fallen in the recession, but the recession has also reduced the number of planes flying, and made a significant contribution to the reduction in aircraft flying and polluting our atmosphere . The NATS, the air traffic controllers, has its own target and a coherent plan to achieve reductions en route, in holding and at airports. Its menu cards are technically specific and some of the plans are SMART.

A responsible strategy

Aviation is not currently being dealt with in the Kyoto system. A responsible aviation pollution reduction strategy requires that the stakeholders, particularly those who operate and manage the industry, adopt an approach similar to that of NATS – one that is specific and credible in its requirements.

Any credible response to the scale of the challenge confronting our species requires an agreed baseline for carbon emissions, a clear auditable target for reduction with interim objectives and a credible global plan for mitigation. The aviation industry has been behaving as though it expected to secure a continuation of its exempt status – this now looks much less likely. It is time to press hard for the aviation sector to be held to account, to take its responsibilities seriously.

In June the ICAO, the UN specialist agency charged with addressing the reduction of aviation emissions, recommended a 2% annual increase in fuel efficiency through to 2050. Confusingly, this is expressed as a goal through to 2012, a recommendation 2012 to 2020 and an aspirational goal for 2021to 2050. It is hard to believe that they expect this to be achieved: until the onset of the recession, the average annual rate of increase in aviation has been 4.5% a year.  So far the recession* has contributed more than ICAO or IATA to the reduction in emissions.

There are however reasons for optimism.

CO2 is seen in the US as a public health hazard

There are signs, at last, of progress in the USA. In March 2009 the US Environment Protection Agency sent an ‘endangerment finding’ to Obama in the White House stating that it has determined that CO2 poses a hazard to US citizens and seeking authority to regulate and limit CO2 emissions under the Clean Air Act. This will treat carbon as a pollutant and a public health hazard.

In the House of Representatives a Clean Energy and Security Act (the Waxman-Markey Bill) has been introduced which may result in US airlines having to pay a domestic carbon tax, through a cap-and-trade program applicable to jet fuel. The Bill passed the House of Representatives at the end of June, and, as it stands, has annual reduction targets for national carbon emissions – requiring a 17% reduction on 2005 levels by 2020.

Carbon offsetting is increasingly discredited

Carbon offsetting has been heavily criticised – most recently by Friends of the Earth – as a dangerous distraction. It allows the purchase of permits to pollute – like medieval pardons – designed to perpetuate behaviour that damages our environment.

The United States Government Audit Office in 2008 cautioned that “it is not possible to ensure that every credit represents a real, measurable, and long-term reduction in emissions” Many carbon offset products share the characteristics of toxic debt: as the Friends of the Earth report makes clear, offsets are for sale and have been purchased which do not deliver what the purchaser expects, and some have received very adverse publicity in the press . Offsetting delays us reducing the burning of fossil fuels and securing greater efficiency by the polluter. As a strategy, it is preferred because it is cheaper, and is a dangerous distraction from solutions which address the volume of flying and push airlines and aircraft producers to increase their carbon efficiency of flying. These would tackle pollution at source.

Why is cap-and-trade the preferred option for airlines?

Currently, aviation will be brought with the European Emissions Trading Scheme. Airlines will be allocated emissions permits, which they can sell if they have a surplus or buy elsewhere (from within the sector or from other sectors). This has the attraction for the industry that emissions can be maintained and the airline can go on flying – effectively, it is buying a permit to continue polluting, and requires no meaningful change in behaviour.

Carbon offsets are available at a range of very different prices; yet the cost of carbon offsetting is way below the UK government’s 2009 shadow price of carbon at £26.50 per tonne.  Airlines are also aware that where quotas are set by governments they are likely to be generous, making the scheme doubly attractive. The caps are very vulnerable to lobbying pressure by industry reminding governments of the national importance of the aviation sector; fishing quotas are a prime example of this sort of regulation in action.

Air passenger duty

This not a green tax in any acceptable sense. There are two principal ways a tax can be ‘green’. Firstly, it can encourage producers reduce the amount of pollution they cause. Secondly, the revenues can be hypothecated (specifically reserved) for projects promoting adaptation to a low-carbon economy or that mitigate the harmful effects of flying. APD achieves neither of these objectives. It raises revenue for general government expenditure (much of which may well be carbon heavy) and offers no incentive for an airline to become more carbon efficient: the passenger pays the same tax regardless of the carbon efficiency of the airline. Furthermore, because it is a national scheme, UK airlines and airports and destinations – for example the Caribbean – are disadvantaged. The APD distorts competition and fails to create any incentive for airlines to become more carbon efficient. We need something better.

Climate change and developmentDeveloping countries are becoming more assertive about the need to generate substantial resources to help them adapt to climate change – which has most impact in the developing world. The 50 least-developed countries have tabled, for discussion in Copenhagen, a proposal that an aviation levy should be introduced to fund adaptation measures in the world’s poorest and most heavily impacted countries. The Maldives, meanwhile, has proposed a flat-rate levy.

Many of the world’s least-developed countries are dependent on tourism; small-island developing countries have few economic opportunities in the global economy. In the Caribbean, changing tastes and agricultural policy in developed countries have undermined the tobacco, sugar and rum industries. Tourism is often the industry of last resort rather than of choice. APD, which levies disproportionate charges on Caribbean nations is a particularly damaging tax that will penalise their development; once again the Caribbean will suffer at the hands of the colonial power.

In May, the Global Humanitarian Forum published its: ‘Human Impact Report: Climate Change – The Anatomy of a Silent Crisis’. The report estimates that climate change today accounts for over 300,000 deaths throughout the world each year, the equivalent of 2004’s Indian Ocean tsunami every single year. By 2030, the annual death toll from climate change is forecast to reach half a million people a year. This is a major humanitarian crisis. In June, Gordon Brown suggested that climate change adaptation funding should begin in 2013, and that the scale of resources required by 2020 was $100bn per annum. Resourcing on this scale clearly requires a dedicated fund.

A responsible strategy would incentivise mitigation and fund adaptationA tiny fragment of the world’s population flies each year; some estimates are as low as 2%. In the UK it is more than half the population but in the UK, as at the global level, it is the wealthy that fly and the poor who suffer the worst consequences of climate change.

A responsible strategy would ensure that the polluters pay: that the least carbon-efficient airlines would pay the most tax. A carbon tax on fuel would promote a reduction in consumption and the proceeds could be used to compensate those who have been most adversely affected by pollution – the world’s poor living in the lest developed countries who are already being affected by changes in climate and the increased frequency of extreme weather events.

The incentives created by the tax would work in a straight line to encourage airlines to fly in a more carbon-efficient way  and to reduce pollution. Passengers, meanwhile, would be encouraged to choose other forms of short-haul travel and, when flying, the most carbon efficient seats.

A carbon tax on fuel would raise very significant sums of money to fund the adaptation essential to ensure that climate change does not exacerbate poverty and premature death. And, given that aviation emissions cause climate change globally, the revenues from taxation designed to mitigate climate change should be disbursed by the UN or a similar agency for mitigation in those areas worst affected globally.

Travellers – what we can do

Travellers and holidaymakers need to be encouraged to think about their impacts and encouraged to reduce them. This is the approach of the FlySmart campaign. Fly less, reduce your air miles, and, if you decide to fly, choose the most carbon-efficient way to reduce the pollution you cause. Fly direct; fly on planes which are full; fly economy rather than business; consider taking a charter flight; reduce your luggage.

The pioneering Carbon Friendly Flight Finder – accessible from www.flysmart.org – has now been used by over 10,000 consumers. 57% of those consumers chose the greenest and cheapest over the cheapest, paying an average premium of 19% over the lowest cost/higher carbon options. This is proof that, given a credible choice, many consumers are willing to take responsibility and buy a greener option. 45% of air journeys in Europe are less than 500km, and better rail services at affordable prices would be quicker and more convenient; business people and the relatively wealthy take the train from the heart of London to the heart of Paris or Brussels, the less affluent suffer Heathrow or Gatwick.

Assuaging guilt by buying a carbon offset does nothing to pressure the airlines to offer more carbon efficient flights. Consumers should FlySmart and if they need to assuage their guilt, they should find a carbon philanthropy initiative – one which is charitable and attracts gift aid, and which is designed to help those worst affected by climate change to adapt.

The task for governments

It is the responsibility of governments formulate a coherent policy to climate change – to link mitigation and adaptation – and ensure that taxation does not distort competition. Most radically, they must shape policy to encourage a reduction in the rate of growth of flying, and to reward more carbon-efficient flight.

Governments need to work with airports and the air traffic controllers to make the skies more efficient, to reduce holding and to increase public transport to and from airports.

Government should be setting an example by using the most carbon efficient flights and flying less – and they should not be endorsing offsetting

AirlinesAirlines should shoulder their responsibility, and make their flights more carbon efficient for every passenger mile flown. They must stop passing the buck to the passenger. Indeed, airlines should be competing to be more carbon efficient: this has the potential to be a real competitive advantage in a tough market. Many airlines are already doing a great deal but they could do more, and they should be telling the consumers what they have achieved – for example, by labelling seats so that passengers are informed about the level of pollution their individual flight in a particular seat is causing.

There is an aviation forum at https://tiny.cc/rtp254 where you could reply to this post or contribute to the discussion about aircraft pollution and responsibility.

Harold Goodwin International Centre for Responsible Tourism

* NATS is reporting that June 2009 was the 12th consecutive month in which the number of flights in UK airspace fell, and that the number fell by 10.5% in June. Transatlantic departures and arrivals were down 14% year on year compared with a reduction of 9.9% for domestic flights. The recession in the airline industry is deep and if the industry could persuade us that the sensible baseline is 2012, when the it may be at the bottom of the trough, that would make achieving any target a good deal easier than using 2008.

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