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Head-to-Head debate on aviation growth

21 Apr 2008

head-to-headThe Head-to-Head debate in the Irish Times on 14th April was "Is the growth in air travel sustainable" between Friends of the Earth Director, Oisín Coghlan, and the managing director of Aer Arann. Oisín had the task of pointing out the problems of letting aviation grow unchecked while the rest of us try to reduce our pollution. In the online poll that ran for the week after publication 72% agreed that no, current growth was not sustainable.

You can read the Yes and No sides below. And you can see what people said in online debate.

"Is the growth in air travel sustainable?"

NO says Friends of the Earth Director, Oisín Coghlan.

The unpalatable truth is that if we want to avoid the worst effects of global climate change we will have to fly less in future. This is not environmental Puritanism, it is simple arithmetic. Last year's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report concluded that we need to cut global greenhouse gas emissions in half, at least, by 2050. Meanwhile, emissions from international aviation have doubled since 1990.

These contradictory trends are projected to get worse. While the Irish and British governments predict a doubling of airline passenger numbers between now and 2030 and plan to provide for it, both governments have also pledged to cut climate pollution by 3% a year on average.

A collision in on the cards. To avoid dangerous climate change we must limit global warming to less than 2 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels. If aviation continues to grow unchecked it would account for all our permitted emissions well before 2050. All other polluting activity - including much that is essential for human survival - would have to stop, just to allow the planes continue flying. Personally, I would rather have food, shelter, heat, light, jobs and leisure activity with family and friends even if that means curtailing flying.

You will hear much special pleading from the airline industry, much of it based on myth.

You will hear that aviation is only responsible for 2 to 3% of climate pollution. The 2% figure, taken from a 1999 IPCC report, uses data from 1992. Those figures refer only to CO2 emissions and don't take into account the total climate impact of flight. When you include NOX emissions, contrails and cirrus clouds, aviation accounts for 4 to 9 per cent of the human contribution to climate change - this range reflects the uncertainty surrounding the full effect of the cirrus clouds generated by planes.

You will hear that aviation will only account for 5% of EU emissions in 2030. But that scenario assumes low growth in aviation emissions, of less that 2% a year, whereas in fact they have been growing at over 4% a year. And it ignores the fact that, unlike the airline industry, other sectors are already committed to reducing their emissions under EU plans. So this is not about picking on the airline industry, it is about asking every sector to do its fair share to tackle climate change.

You will hear great claims about improved aircraft fuel efficiency, good enough to rival that of cars. In fact today's turbojet airplanes are no better than the typical piston-powered airliners of the 1950s. The comparison with cars assumes every seat on the plane is filled. Load factors are more like 70%. It also underestimates car occupancy rates on long distance journeys, which tend to be higher than on short journeys, and once again only includes the CO2 impact of flight. When you take all these factors into account planes are at least three times more polluting than cars. Moreover, when was the last time you drove 10,000 miles in car? During the whole of last year maybe. You cover the same distance in a weekend shopping trip to New York.

It is absurd therefore that airline fuel is exempt from tax. No wonder you can fly from Cork to Dublin for less than it costs you to fill your petrol tank or buy a train ticket. The rest of us, Irish Rail included, pay hefty taxes on our transport fuel. In Ireland the madness extends to directly subsidising domestic air routes at the expense of a decent train service.

The price of flying will have to rise to reflect the cost of flying, which includes the cost of burning fossil fuels high in the atmosphere not just the cost of extracting them from deep underground. Domestic subsidies will go, international taxes will come. Moreover, the revenue should be used to compensate developing countries struggling to cope with climate change they did not cause.

It gives me no great pleasure to herald the end of the era of cheap, guilt-free, flight. Like many of my age and background I took it for granted. It has not been the socialist nirvana that is often implied, however. Yes, more people flew but mostly richer people just flew more often. In the UK, the richest quarter of households account for half all flights, the poorest quarter for just 7%. In the biggest low-cost airport in Germany the monthly income of passengers is twice the national average.

Price alone will not be enough to ensure aviation plays its part in containing climate change. Governments will have to cap capacity, so no third terminal and no second runway at Dublin airport, for starters. The sooner the industry accepts this the sooner it stops looking like a flightless bird with its head in the sand.


"Is the growth in air travel sustainable?"

YES says Managing Director of Aer Arann, Garry Cullen

AVIATION FACES the twin challenges of globalisation, which drives growth in demand for air travel, and climate change, which is raising acute concerns about that growth.

Future sustainability requires investment stability, employment and the protection of our environment. Aviation has a key role to play in development through its role as part of the world communication system. The aviation industry is an integral and vital part of the today's society. More than 1,600 million passengers every year are carried by airlines, which also transport 40 per cent of the world's exports. The air transport industry generates a total of 29 million jobs globally.

Global annual traffic growth is forecast to be 4.8 per cent over the next 10 years. The Asia-Pacific region will account for 56 per cent of new aircraft purchased over the next 10 years.

This forecasted growth has raised concerns that the growth of aviation may overtake the environmental improvements that are required for a sustainable future. Aviation is gaining a reputation as the major culprit for environmentalists, yet the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), set up by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), states that aviation is only 2 per cent of global CO2 emissions, whereas road traffic accounted for 16 per cent, and energy creation was 53 per cent.

Climate change is real and all forms of transport, including aviation, are part of a growing problem. But any perception that aviation is almost wholly responsible is an assumption that is intellectually bankrupt, as the scientific data tells an entirely different story. The Stern review, recently commissioned by the UK government, showed that aviation accounts for only 1.6 per cent of global greenhouse gases, and according to the EU Environment Commissioner, aircraft emissions are just 3 per cent of EU CO2 emissions. Stern also made it clear that there is no contradiction between tackling climate change and increasing growth.

The aviation industry takes its responsibilities towards the environment seriously and is working to minimise its impact as much as possible while continuing to deliver services to millions of people.

Air travel will continue to be sustainable in terms of growth and will lessen C02 emissions by reducing fuel consumption, adapting aircraft size for the route and by greater efficiency in air-traffic management.

Fuel costs represent a significant proportion of an airline's operating costs. The current increase in fuel prices is accelerating the replacement of older equipment with more eco-efficient aircraft. Fuel efficiency of aircraft has improved 20 per cent in the last decade. For instance, Aer Arann has commenced its fleet-replacement programme with new ATR 72-500 turboprops. These have very low fuel consumption: on a typical 370km sector, the fuel consumption per passenger of an Aer Arann plane is up to 15 per cent lower than that of a typical car, and 70 per cent lower than a jet on the same route. Adapting aircraft size for a particular route is fundamental to efficient fleet management. Airlines must fly the most fuel-efficient aircraft type for the sector. The majority of routes from Ireland are short haul, ie, 500-600kms. One size does not fit all routes, as there are different levels of demand on a given route, and an airline is most environmentally efficient when it can respond to these changing demands. New regional aircraft such as turboprops operate more efficiently than jet aircraft on short-haul routes. They emit about 20 per cent less CO2 per passenger carried than newer jets and up to three times less CO2 than older ones. Regional aircraft operate at relatively low altitude (15,000-17,000ft), compared to jets (30,000ft or more), leaving the ozone layer unaffected from nitrous oxides. In addition, regional aircraft use much less fuel than a jet on the same route. A typical Aer Arann flight from Cork to Dublin burns approx 545kgs in an ATR72-500, whereas a typical Boeing 737 jet would burn approx 1,350kgs Cork-Dublin.

Congestion remains air transport's biggest long-term challenge. It causes delays and unreliability for passengers, reduced efficiency for airline and airport operators, and is a massive waste of energy and materials. Congestion means that aircraft are required to operate at lower and inefficient cruising levels. The extra fuel required can mean an aircraft burns between 20 and 30 per cent additional fuel on each trip.

Aer Arann, as a member of the European Regional Airlines Association, is committed to pursuing every effort to minimise aviation's environmental impact through research, technological progress and operational measures. Aer Arann and the ERA support an openemissions trading scheme, solely for CO2 emissions, provided such a scheme has been demonstrated to be beneficial to the environment and without any severe detrimental consequences.

Read what people said in online debate and poll


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