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Don’t go far

By Sadhbh O’ Neill

What do the recent news reports about the sale of Aer Lingus, an earthquake in Nepal and the collapse of the Greek economy all have in common?

The answer is the importance of air travel for tourism, global connectivity and economic growth.

The aviation industry as a whole contributes 2.6% of Irish GDP, and supports up to 40,000 jobs, in addition to contributing to taxes and indirect spending. In Nepal, where a recent earthquake has devastated the country’s infrastructure and killed over 8,000 people, the travel and tourism sector provides 3.2% of that country’s total employment. Leisure accounts for over 80% of the spending.

And in Greece, that country’s economic crisis has brought a flood of tourists seeking good value and availing of cheap deals from the UK in particular. Tourism brings revenue of over €13bn to Greece annually and has seen a growth of over 30% in the past year alone.

There is a problem, however. New (jet) airliner models in the first decade of the 21st Century were barely more efficient on a seat-mile basis than the latest propellor-powered airliners of the late 1950s.

Carbon-dioxide emissions from aviation, while small at just 3% of global emissions, are growing faster than any other source. Globally, about 8.3 million people flew daily (3 billion occupied seats per year) in 2013, twice the total in 1999. U.S. airlines alone burned about 16.2 billion gallons of fuel during the twelve months between October 2013 and September 2014. They also originate from just a tiny fraction of the world population, which is dominated by affluent leisure travellers (that includes us, here in Ireland, flying once a year to Mediterranean holiday resorts).

Dramatically, the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change estimates that the warming effect of aircraft emissions is about 1.9 times that of carbon dioxide alone, due to the other gases produced by planes. (A higher figure of 2.7 was previously used, but a more conservative one of 1.9 is now preferred, and is the one commonly used).

So when discussing aviation’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, we need to take cognisance of the peculiar status this sector enjoys in our economic framework and in our cultural attitudes to wealth and personal freedom. Let’s face it: flying is enormously environmentally costly but we in the first world perceive it to be a precious luxury, one that we are not prepared to forego. So that’s why it is ‘peculiar’, and we should be wary of falling for arguments that would allow aviation emissions growth to be offset against those of other sectors.

So what should we do about CO2 emissions from aviation? Well the first thing to note is that these emissions are not currently regulated at all, except in the EU under the Emissions Trading Scheme. This measure gives airlines an emissions allowance as a percentage of the EU aviation market, over which the airlines must pay for emission rights. It cost Ryanair for instance €1.7m last year, but they received 70% of their emission rights free of charge. The cost per passenger in 2014 would only have been 2c per person, hardly a punitive tax. This mechanism only applies to flights originating and ending within the EU and the cost has largely been passed onto consumers with no effect on demand or CO2.

While the EU effort is clearly a start, if the desire to hold global warming below 2°C is serious, it must be translated into an effective global effort to reduce emissions by at least 80% by 2050, and not the 50% reduction favoured by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).

Under the Kyoto Protocol, responsibility for the design of an effective voluntary regime was left up to none other than the aforementioned ICAO so that airlines could figure out themselves how to square their actual emissions pathways with global expectations of limiting warming to 2°C.

Given what we know about the inertia of energy systems and the incremental rate of technological advancement, policy-makers and the travelling public alike need to acknowledge an inevitable constraint on air travel. At some point, and as soon as possible, emissions need to peak and then decline to at least 80% below 2005 levels. And if we want to stick to the 2°C target we will have to peak straight away. Yes, that means no more growth at all.

However, the aviation sector is still witnessing growth even in ‘mature’ markets such as the US, where emissions have increased by 64% in 20 years. The global projections to 2050 are for a rise in passenger/km of up to 500%. Just to put this into perspective, by 2010 emissions from aviation were of similar magnitude to those from the entire continents of either Africa or South America. Dublin Airport, for example, is planning and developing for a doubling of  passenger numbers from 2008 numbers to 30m annually by 2020 and for up to 40m by 2025. In 2014 the numbers rose to 22m, up 8% on 2013 due to the addition of 24 new routes and additional flights on 34 existing services, which followed the Government’s decision to drop the €3 a passenger air travel tax.

Unlike other sectors, it is simply impossible to ‘decarbonise’ air travel. Technological ‘fixes’, including vaunted hydrogen and solar,  are simply less likely to be feasible than in other  sectors including other transport. The International Panel on Climate Change has said: “there would not appear to be any practical alternatives to kerosene-based fuels for commercial jet aircraft for the next several decades”. Adding an electric drive to the airplane’s nose wheel may improve fuel efficiency during ground handling. This addition would allow taxiing without use of the main engines.

Other opportunities arise from the optimisation of airline timetables, route networks and flight frequencies to increase load factors.

Technological ‘improvements’ can offer at best 1-2% per annum in fuel efficiencies, but it takes decades to replace entire carbon-profligate fleets, including current advance orders; and we don’t have decades.

To curb growth it will be necessary to do what is politically and culturally deeply unpopular: introduce a moratorium on airport expansion; bring in price mechanisms to curb demand growth (travel-tax increases again) and even an individual carbon quota scheme so that individuals can be made personally liable for their aviation-related emissions. The net point is that aviation is heading to being a grossly disproportionate percentage of carbon emissions by 2050. Just consider the moral implications of constraining growth in other crucial sectors and impoverished countries, so that a wealthy elite can continue to fly. That’s the insuperable problem  with current aviation projections.

Of course, it’s true, Ireland can’t do these things alone. But they will have to be done eventually, so the Irish Civil Aviation Authority should stop opposing the ETS and support measures to effectively regulate and reduce emissions fairly at a global level. But it is true that the consequences of reducing air-travel demand are very serious. Since it is such a key component of the globalised economy, targeted and radical reductions from the aviation sector could trigger an economic crisis or even worse.

More importantly though, we need to move away from attributing blame for these emissions to Michael O’Leary for making air travel so irresistibly cheap, and towards a more considered understanding of our collective responsibility for, and dependence on cheap-fossil energy. We may be forced to accept limits to our definition of personal freedom and the attachment we all have to foreign travel. The idea of submitting our own private consumption (however justified it might be) to regulation by the government through individual carbon quotas will take some getting used to. A recent study, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology by researchers at IIASA and Center for International Climate and Environmental Research (CICERO) calculates the climate impact for passenger trips of 500-1,000 km – typical distances for business or holiday trips. It shows that while air travel continues to have the biggest climate impact per distance travelled, the choices that people make about how they drive or take public transport make a big difference in how much they contribute to climate change.

“Traveling alone in a large car can be as bad for the climate as flying, but driving with three in a small car could have an equally low impact as a train ride,” says IIASA’s Jens Borken-Kleefeld. A 1,000 km trip alone in a big car could emit as much as 250 kg of carbon dioxide (CO2), the researchers calculate, while a train trip or carpooling in a small car could emit as little as 50 kg of CO2 for each traveler.

Air travel has by far the biggest impact on climate per distance traveled, because it can lead to contrails and formation of cirrus clouds that have a strong climate impact, as well as ozone. These mechanisms have a strong effect on the climate, but cause warming over much shorter periods of time than CO2. But it is important not to be fooled into equivalising planes and cars for example: a return trip to New York may use a year’s average car emissions for an individual: without planes the journey would probably not take place – a good thing, environmentally.

Depressingly, trains and even boats do not necessarily seem to be much more efficient than planes, though ultimately trains can be fuelled by renewable electricity.  Still for the moment the lesson seems to be to avoid long-distance travel. •