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6 Nov, 2006

Climate Change Report Blasts Aviation’s Growing Role

Barely a few weeks after a University of Oxford report discussed the potential environmental impact of aviation-dependent island nations like the U.K., another report on climate change and global warming has sounded the warning at a global level.

The flurry of these reports indicate that the era of unrestricted aviation expansion is about to end as the forces of free-market deregulation, liberalisation and open-sky competition coming up against the countervailing forces of environmental damage done by thousands of gas-guzzling aircraft plying the skies.

Calling climate change the “greatest market failure” ever seen, the so-called “Stern Report” prepared for the U.K. Treasury says the aviation industry is likely to be “among the fastest-growing” contributors to global warming by 2050. It has called for both the aviation and shipping industries to be slapped with a “carbon pricing” structure to curb emissions of greenhouse gasses.

Released with much fanfare in the U.K. last week, the independent report was commissioned in July 2005 by the U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer “to examine the evidence on the economic impacts of climate change, explore the economics of stabilising greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and consider the complex policy challenges involved in managing the transition to a low-carbon economy.”

Named after Sir Nicholas Stern, Head of the U.K. Government Economic Service and Adviser on the Economics of Climate Change and Development, the report’s real impact lies in the assertion that long-sounded warnings about the impact of global warming are proving certifiably true, leaving no room for any further time-wasting scepticism and dithering about what needs to be done next.

“Climate change presents a unique challenge for economics: it is the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen,” the report says. “The economic analysis must therefore be global, deal with long time horizons, have the economics of risk and uncertainty at centre stage, and examine the possibility of major, non-marginal change.”

It adds, “The effects of our actions now on future changes in the climate have long lead times. What we do now can have only a limited effect on the climate over the next 40 or 50 years. On the other hand what we do in the next 10 or 20 years can have a profound effect on the climate in the second half of this century and in the next.”

The report says that transport accounts for 14% of global greenhouse-gas emissions, making it the third largest source of emissions jointly with agriculture and industry. Three-quarters of these emissions are from road transport, while aviation accounts for around one-eighth and rail and shipping make up the remainder.

“CO2 emissions from aviation are expected to grow by over three-fold in the period to 2050, making it among the fastest growing sectors. After taking account of the additional global warming effects of aviation emissions, aviation is expected to account for 5% of the total warming effect (radiative forcing) in 2050.”

The report says that while aviation CO2 emissions currently account for 1.6% of global greenhouse gasses (GHG) emissions, the actual impact is greater “because of other gases released by aircraft and their effects at high altitude. For example, water vapour emitted at high altitude often triggers the formation of condensation trails, which tend to warm the earth’s surface. There is also a highly uncertain global warming effect from cirrus clouds (clouds of ice crystals) that can be created by aircraft.”

The package of suggested solutions indicates that all transportation sectors will have to bear their share of responsibility. It will have to include once-taboo ideas like a “reduction in demand for emissions-intensive goods and services, with both net reductions in demand, and efficiency improvements in key sectors including transport, industry, buildings, fossil fuel power generation.”

The report notes that while the electricity sector would have to be largely decarbonised by 2050, through a mixture of renewables, carbon-capture-and-storage and nuclear, the transport sector is still likely to be largely oil-based by 2050, and efficiency gains will be needed to keep down growth.

It says that “there is currently no incentive to reduce international aviation emissions, as only emissions from domestic flights are currently allocated to any country within national emissions inventories. Furthermore, many large international markets are outside the current Kyoto obligations framework.”

It says that “aviation is unlikely to see technology breakthroughs, but there is potential for efficiency savings” such as by improved air traffic management and reduced weight, through the use of alternative and advanced materials.”

But there are complications at every step. The report notes that one way of achieving CO2 improvements in aircraft is to increase combustion temperatures in engines, but “this increases levels of NOx, an important local air pollutant. “

“An international carbon trading system keeps emissions within limits whilst allowing emission reductions to be made at least cost through the trading of allowances. This is the UK’s carbon price instrument of choice and a key component in a comprehensive U.K. policy framework to effectively mitigate climate change.”

The full report is available from: http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/independent_reviews/stern_review_economics_climate_change/stern_review_report.cfm

The position of the International Air Transport Association on this issue is outlined at: http://www.iata.org/whatwedo/environment/index.htm

The International Civil Aviation Organization also has several publications on the subject: http://www.icao.int/icao/en/env/index.html

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