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23 Oct, 2006

Low Cost Airlines Facing Climate Change Scrutiny

Although aviation liberalisation and low-cost airlines are being widely credited for the short-term boom in travel and economic growth, their long-term ecological impact is facing increasing scrutiny.

A report by the Environmental Change Institute of the University of Oxford, U.K., released earlier this month says that with governments coming under pressure to curb carbon emissions due to the threat of global warming, ways will need to be found to balance that against the economic requirements of continued travel.

There is talk of higher taxes and higher fares, both of which will crimp the rosy forecasts that the travel and tourism industry has long taken for granted.

Entitled “Predict and decide — Aviation, climate change and U.K. policy”, the report is particularly important for the U.K., an island nation hugely dependent on aviation for its transport, tourism and economic growth.

Other countries also benefit by outbound U.K. tourism. The report says “there is a £17 billion tourism deficit resulting from U.K. residents spending more money abroad than overseas visitors bring in: for every £1 an overseas visitor spends in the U.K., a U.K. resident spends £2.32 abroad.”

At the same time, it says, “The U.K. Government is committed to a 60% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from U.K. activities between 1990 and 2050. Many climate scientists now believe that even tougher targets are needed, but in all cases swift action is required to reduce climate impacts.”

The primary aim of the report was to assess the contribution of aviation to climate change, and to review existing policy in this context, including the potential role for economic policy measures to mitigate its impacts. It focuses on the issues raised by aviation emissions for the U.K., including the potential for, and implications of, taking unilateral action on the issue.

The report notes that the U.K.’s air passenger movements are forecast to grow from about 200 million in 2003 to about 470 million in 2030. As a result, it says that the government will need to explore a range of policy options to manage demand for air travel, including:

• A change in strategic policy to give a presumption against the expansion of U.K. airport capacity;

• A fiscal package to make flying less attractively priced;

• A communication strategy that builds on existing public support for addressing aviation’s environmental impacts and ensures that the contribution of flying to climate change is understood and recognised.

The U.K. generates more flights than any other European country: a fifth of all international air passengers worldwide are on flights that arrive or leave from U.K. airports. Hence, aviation makes a proportionally greater contribution to climate change for the U.K. than for most other countries.

The report notes that in just ten years, between 1990 and 2000, carbon dioxide emissions from U.K. aviation have doubled even though the combined emissions of carbon dioxide from all other U.K. activities fell by around 9% during the same period.

Various forecasts of U.K. air travel growth indicates that aviation emissions are set to more than double again between 2000 and 2030 and could increase to between 4 and 10 times their 1990 level by 2050.

Even at the lower end of the forecast range, carbon dioxide emissions from aviation are set to reach 17 million tonnes of carbon (MtC) by 2050. The higher end of the range is 44 MtC.

As the U.K. is attempting to limit the carbon emissions of all its economic activities to 65 MtC by this date, it means that that, in order to offset aviation’s emissions, all other sectors of the U.K. economy would need to reduce their emissions by 71%–87% instead of the currently planned 60% from 1990 levels.

“There is no sign that this can or will happen: the existing 60% target is already extremely challenging,” the report says.

It notes that if improvements in air traffic management, other operational procedures and technological development do not occur, emissions could be even higher.

“The implication is that the U.K. will be unable to meet its targets for reducing climate change impacts without action to curb the demand for air travel. It is a political decision as to whether the aim should be to restrict the anticipated growth in aviation emissions, stabilise them at current levels or reduce them in absolute terms.”

The report also notes that flying cannot be regarded as a socially inclusive activity – “much of the recent expansion has occurred because better off people are flying more often.”

The U.K. is “increasingly developing an air dependent culture,” the report says. “If action to tackle flying is postponed, we will enter an era in which frequent flying is increasingly the norm for better-off households, with lifestyles adapted to this expectation, including far greater ownership of second homes abroad, and more geographically-distant networks of friends and family.”

The report argues that although aviation curbs would affect economic growth, “this would be offset by public revenue from a more appropriate fiscal package for aviation and the potential effect of higher air fares on the growing tourism deficit. The balance between the costs and benefits needs to be carefully assessed.”

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