The Future for Aviation

David Archer, 3rd June 2004ce

Recent revelations from a leaked Pentagon report illustrate that while President George W Bush still ignores the darkening clouds on the horizon, the American military is, at least, beginning to think about buying an umbrella. Climate change, according to the report, ‘should be elevated beyond a scientific debate to a US national security concern’.

Few now doubt the reality of climate change induced by human activity, but when an organisation of the size and influence of the Pentagon is only now beginning to think about addressing climate change, how can individual consumers hope to have any impact on the problem?

The Government has recently announced its plans to allow the air industry to expand, with the possibility of three times as many passengers passing through my local airport in Manchester. The Government also has plans to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 60% by 2050. Can these two aims ever be compatible?

Aircraft engines emit carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas, in quantities to impress any collector of big numbers, and this is just one of several direct impacts on the environment.

Given its plans for air industry expansion, the only way the Government could cut carbon dioxide emissions by 60% would be to cut other sources of emissions such as power stations, road vehicles and heating buildings almost completely. As that is most unlikely, the target will almost certainly not be met. The Government knows this, so why encourage further rapid growth in aviation?

To put the problem into perspective, consider a typical family of four. The energy use over which they have personal control might lead to these annual emissions of carbon dioxide: from electricity use about 2.5 tonnes, from gas for heating and hot water about 5 tonnes, and from the use of a car about 4 tonnes.

What about a family holiday? A trip to the USA would result in about 8 tonnes of carbon dioxide being emitted as the fuel is burned in the aircraft’s engines. In a few hours of flying the family has caused more emission than their domestic energy use does in a year, and about twice the emissions from a car travelling 12,000 miles.

This example highlights the reason why our individual choices about air travel are so important. We might be good citizens in terms of switching off lights, having an efficient central heating boiler, or choosing a car which does lots of miles per gallon. Such actions are to be encouraged, but we must become much more aware that our choice of holiday destination can have much more impact.

There is nothing wrong with operating airports while discouraging excessive flying. After all, we run a health service without persuading people to be ill, and a water supply system without encouraging its wasteful use.

Last summer many reservoirs were running dry and people went to look at the parched mud and the shallow water. Those people would not have been surprised when water supply companies appealed to us to reduce consumption.

It’s a pity that our global supplies of oil are not held in vast open reservoirs for all to see. If we could see the level dropping, dropping, year after year, knowing that unlike water the oil could never be replaced, no-one would be surprised if we were told to reduce our use of the precious liquid.

But the reserves of oil are out of sight, out of mind. As supplies dwindle and countries squabble over what is left, the most vulnerable countries will be those most dependent on fossil fuels. And, unlike water, oil can never be replaced.

Regrettably, in our cultural development we have had no need to respect the irreplaceable, because until the industrial revolution we relied on sources of energy which were renewable, being constantly replaced by nature. We no longer have this luxury. But neither do we have the words adequately to define or discuss the idea of something being used once and lost for ever, its use denied to future generations.

Oil is a prime example of this problem, and for aviation there is no obvious fuel to take its place.

The Government’s expansion plans for UK airports assume a three-fold increase in flights. Most of this increase will be holiday flights. Are we all to be allowed three times as many days off work? What happens at home while we are away? While we spend our money abroad less is spent at home; no trade for local shops and leisure services, less contact with our neighbours, less time spent establishing a sense of place and of belonging to the community, for it is at those times when we are free from the routine of work that we can devote more time to improving the place where we live.

Remember that we in the UK are getting into the habit of flying abroad for holidays while the reverse is not true. Bury is not yet perceived by foreigners as a prime holiday destination. While we flood out of the country, forsaking our traditional holidays in North Wales, Scarborough or Blackpool, what happens to the tourism industry there?

Around the airports themselves more and more people will suffer from noise, poor air quality and traffic congestion, despite the Government’s intention to make the industry cleaner and quieter. A three-fold increase in flights will more than negate any attempts to improve.

When does growth stop? We confidently plan for economic growth of a few percent a year without asking where it is leading us. We measure growth by the increase in overall economic activity without asking about the nature of it.

To take one example, buying highly processed and packaged food that has travelled up and down the motorway a few times is seen as a positive contribution to our county’s ‘success’ while growing your own vegetables at home contributes nothing. Can this system of accounting carry on? It has been described as being like judging the quality of a piece of music by counting the number of notes.

When we choose to buy food imported from Africa the pollution and waste of non-renewable sources during the air flight are ignored but the money transactions all contribute to economic growth. The Government is planning for a three-fold increase in flights. What happens if we ‘succeed’?

One does not have to be a particularly religious person to accept that in a world of finite resources, the long term solutions must be based on the spiritual, not the material.

So what can we do? The greatest mistake is to do nothing because we think we can do only a little.

There is no such thing as a free lunch, and no such thing as a cheap flight. The costs haven’t disappeared, they have been shifted elsewhere. It is clearly a nonsense to think we can fly across Europe for the price of a pint, it is worrying that so many of us take advantage of the situation with out questioning it, and even more worrying that our leaders allow it to happen. Aviation fuel is not taxed, holiday tickets attract no VAT – as if they were necessities of life, while other goods and services such as energy-saving building products are taxed.

The first step, therefore, is to tax the industry so that it pays a fairer share of the costs it currently imposes on others. You might pay 75p for a litre of fuel for your car. Is it reasonable that airlines only pay 18p a litre for aviation fuel? These changes need Government action, through the European Union, and all we can do is to keep telling them this until they get the message.

Here is an idea which would cost little and would need no international or even national agreement. Every packet of cigarettes carries a bold health warning. It would not be unreasonable to suggest that every airline ticket should carry a warning (in large bold type) stating that air travel is harmful to the planet.

David Archer is co-ordinator of the local group of Friends of the Earth in Bury, Greater Manchester, and is Chair of the Resource Issues Group on the town's Environment Forum. He campaigns mainly on climate change issues with a current focus on emissions from the aviation industry.