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Taking Responsibility for Aviation

September 30, 2009
Harold Goodwin
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In May the Global Humanitarian Forum estimated that climate change accounts for over 300,000 deaths each year, the equivalent of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami every year. Climate change impacts most on the world’s poor in the developed and the developing world. A report commissioned by University College London and the Lancet has concluded that climate change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st century and that the poor will be the first affected.

The tourism industry in the UK and around the world provides life enhancing and life changing experiences to billions of people each year and brings economic development to countries and regions often with no other viable means of engaging in the world economy. The tourism industry has begun to take responsibility and is making real efforts to improve its sustainability. The airline industry is still in denial.

The airline industry secured its exclusion from the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. Last week Willie Walsh and IATA, on behalf of the global airline industry, announced that they now favour a ‘global sectoral approach.’ They proposed some vague targets and then asked for more time, until November 2010 to come up with a framework and a delivery mechanism. If this were accepted aviation would again secure an exemption. The sector’s approach has been denial followed by procrastination. The airline industry has failed to exercise responsibility. Through the Copenhagen process and the International Civil Aviation Organisation the British government could, and should, take responsibility.

A few individual airlines have exercised responsibility, reducing their fuel consumption and consequently their carbon emissions, a trend reinforced and accelerated by the spike in the costs of jet fuel last year, no longer a cause of change. While some airlines have taken responsibility, the industry has preferred to isolate itself from any pressure to improve its performance by placing the responsibility on the consumer to purchase carbon off sets, an approach recently criticised by Friends of the Earth as a “dangerous distraction”. Emissions trading is similar to off-setting, it would allow business as usual for the airlines unless a cap significantly below current emission levels was imposed. That is unlikely. It will not generate the funds required for adaptation.

The challenge is to find and deploy a mechanism which can be introduced globally, which provides a level playing field and which is cheap and efficient to operate, which places effective pressure on the airlines to reduce their carbon emissions by flying more fuel efficient planes, improving their operating procedures and load factors; and which meets the full costs of the floods, famine and disease caused by their carbon pollution and ensures, through hypothecation, that those affected are helped to adapt. This proposal would hypothecate tax raised from those able to afford to fly, whether in the developed or developing world, for business or for leisure, to assist those bearing the brunt of climate change. The polluter, the airline, pays. Those who take responsibility and achieve greater efficiencies, reducing their carbon pollution, would pay less; such a tax would push the airlines to move out of denial, and to reduce their emissions. No passenger tax can achieve that.

It is the relatively wealthy in the developed and developing worlds that fly; their flying imposes costs on others. Those costs should be met in full by those who fly and the proceeds should be hypothecated to establish a Global Adaptation Fund to benefit those areas of the world most seriously impacted by climate change.

A global tax on aviation based on fuel purchases and the DEFRA shadow price of carbon at £27 per ton could raise £16bn for adaptation and this would transfer wealth from the relative wealthy to the poor affected by climate change. This would cost an average of between £7 and £8 extra per passenger per flight and if airlines were taxed on the basis of fuel consumed at the end of a quarterly accounting period they would be incentivised to increase their fuel efficiency per revenue passenger mile.

Consumers have rightly been wary of carbon offsetting. However, when offered the opportunity to choose a carbon efficient airline a commercial carbon friendly flight calculator which enables them to identify the greenest and cheapest 57% of them chose that option, paying an average premium of 19% over the cheapest flights.

Consumers have demonstrated that they are willing to take responsibility. The British Government could provide international leadership, announce a new strategy to raise significant funds for adaptation and work through the International Civil Aviation Organisation to have a proposal on the table for Copenhagen.

Professor Harold Goodwin
International Centre for Responsible Tourism
Leeds Metropolitan University

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