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Rise of low-cost flights comes at high price

Is flying really evil?
guardian.co.uk Travel
Tuesday 26 September 2006 17.09 BST First published on Tuesday 26 September 2006 17.09 BST

Staring global warming in the face ... is ending air travel really the key to saving the environment? Photograph: Antonio Scorza/AFP

In the second article of our week of debate on aviation and climate change, Justin Francis, co-founder of Responsible Travel, argues that the immediate end of air travel is not only impossible - it would be environmentally counter-productive too

Next week I'm flying to Ethiopia on holiday. My plane will emit carbon dioxide and other gases that will contribute to global warming. The Bishop of London would say people like me are evil. One leading environmentalist writing in The Guardian says that people advocating more responsible travel are culpable of "greenwashing" and that most of the aeroplanes flying today should be grounded.

Reading the papers you would think that air travel is the single biggest cause of global warming. In fact, air travel accounts for less than 5% of carbon dioxide emissions. We must look to every sector to reduce emissions, but if we really want to target the biggest culprits then we need to look at homes, which account for nearer 25% of emissions, and power stations, the UK's largest coal-fired version of which wastes two-thirds of the energy it generates.

We've shown before how a few simple changes made in your home can save double the carbon emissions of a return flight to Egypt. In seeking to reduce our emissions we need to examine our entire lifestyles, not just our flying habits. The trouble is that it's sexier to write about planes than lagging your loft.

However, do not take this as my consent to keep on flying as we have done. In fact, I believe we are the first travel agency in the world to tell its customers to fly significantly less. This is because we recognise that aviation is the fastest growing cause of global warming. The amount of carbon dioxide emitted by air travel doubled between 1990 and 2004. This is totally incompatible with the need to reduce carbon emissions by 60% before 2050 (or nearer 70% by 2035 according to the latest research from the Tyndall Centre).

Still, I believe there are a number of critical points relevant to this debate that some environmentalists miss.

What happens if we all stop flying?

The UN World Tourism Organisation states that one in 10 jobs around the world is in tourism and that the industry is growing fastest in developing countries. Many of these countries lack any real alternative since their only real assets are their cultures and natural environments.

I'd argue that increased global unemployment and worsening poverty in many developing countries is not conducive to creating new lower-carbon technologies and lifestyles. People in poverty cannot afford to take decisions for the longer term. Businesses in recession cannot afford to invest in research and development and pay for switching to new lower carbon technologies.

What needs to happen?

We all need to fly a lot less. One way to do this would be to cut out the dramatic increase in short breaks on cheap flights. The only way that this will happen is if the price of flights rises considerably. We must only vote for parties that are prepared to make the tough choices required to make this happen.

We all need to holiday closer to home, and travel more often by train. When we do fly, we need to ensure that our holiday benefits local communities and reduces other environmental impacts - and we need to offset our emissions.

But we do not need to stop flying altogether. That would send us back to the dark ages with massive unemployment, business recession, and increased poverty.

Will people listen?

The problem with many advocates of sustainable development is that they fail to consider people's emotions when trying to persuade them to change their behaviour. Telling them they are evil, or that they must all stop flying immediately, really isn't going to stop families flying off on holiday next summer.

In fact, the carbon dioxide that we have already put into the atmosphere is going to cause us immense global problems and we'll need all the tolerance we can find to work globally to best manage these impacts. Perhaps the cultural understanding that 60 years of international travel has created can help in this.

No forests means no tourists

When I visit Ethiopia I'll be visiting local communities in the Bale Mountains National Park, where the German Development Bank has funded a tourism project to replace local income previously earned from illegal logging. And there lies the incentive for local people to halt the deforestation. If we all stop flying, many national parks around the world will lose their incomes, deforestation will increase and global warming will accelerate faster.

Will technology save us?

George Monbiot argues that there will not be a new fuel or technology to replace kerosene as airline fuel. Sir Richard Branson's scientific advisors obviously disagree as he is prepared to invest over £1bn into bio fuels research. While it's unwise to allow aviation to grow unchecked, I think it's equally unwise to assume that no new solution will be found.

Are people like me guilty of green washing?

We give people who have already decided to travel the choice of a more responsible holiday. We stress the benefits of responsible tourism to local communities without hiding the environmental consequences of flying. We believe that people should fly significantly less, but that it would be detrimental if we were to stop flying altogether. You make up your mind if that's green washing.

Rise of low-cost flights comes at high price
· Fastest growing source of carbon dioxide in UK
· Air transport growth puts climate target in doubt
John Vidal, environment editor
Friday 5 January 2007 15.14 GMT First published on Friday 5 January 2007 15.14 GMT

The government's aggressive language about the aviation industry's failure to get to grips with cutting pollution reflects growing frustration that its emissions are undermining Britain's strategy on climate change. Senior ministers are seeking to lead the international debate about global warming and convince the electorate that the environment is being taken seriously. But cheap flights, globalisation and the mounting cost of train travel have made aviation by far the fastest growing source of carbon dioxide in the UK.

Emissions from UK aviation have increased by nearly 70% since 1990 and rose by 11% in 2004 alone. While they amount to less than 3% of national carbon emissions, expected growth will nearly double this within 25 years.

In addition, aviation is the most highly polluting mode of transportation on earth, and its low share of total emissions hides the fact that the complex chemical reactions that take place when aviation fuel is burned at high altitude make emissions from aeroplanes nearly four times as damaging as those at ground level.

The government is in a double bind. While it is committed to cutting overall UK carbon dioxide emissions by 60% between 1990 and 2050, its own research states that this will be impossible if aviation is allowed to carry on expanding. The Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research estimated last year that aviation emissions could account for up to half of the UK's total emissions target by 2050, cancelling out savings made by individuals and other industrial sectors.

The Department for Transport has also been found to have been underestimating UK aviation emissions by not including non-scheduled flights in its estimates, and by maintaining that half of all people flying out of the United Kingdom live abroad, when the real figure is nearer 30%.

While the government insists that aviation should pay for its environmental costs, it also knows that there is no prospect of any major technological breakthrough that will significantly reduce aircraft emissions. Gradual improvements to fuel and engine efficiency are the best that can be hoped for.

Friends of the Earth estimates that a 1.2% a year reduction in aviation emissions is possible, but this is nowhere near enough to counter the current growth in UK passengers of 6.4% a year. If Britons continue to fly as the Department for Transport forecasts, the number of passengers will increase from 228 million today to 465 million by 2030.

The aviation industry says that it is up to the government to ensure that domestic policy initiatives encourage greater investment in cleaner technology. In theory, the EU's carbon trading scheme may allow aviation giants to buy allocations of emissions from poorer nations. But as the Stern report on the economics of climate change made clear in the autumn, the international nature of aviation also makes the choice of carbon pricing instrument complex. Internationally coordinated taxes are difficult to implement, and International Civil Aviation Organisation rules prohibit the levying of fuel tax on fuel carried on international services.

Meanwhile, the government is under growing grassroots attack for allowing train ticket prices to rise sharply just when it should be trying to encourage people to switch from aviation, and for encouraging the growth of nearly all Britain's main airports. Last month the transport secretary, Douglas Alexander, announced that he would allow airports to keep growing, infuriating local communities who fear increased noise, traffic, pollution and stress. The government's insistence that cheap flights are democratising air travel has also been demolished by figures from the Civil Aviation Authority which show that the average income of UK leisure passengers at cheap flight hub Stansted is more than £50,000.

Tuesday, 15 October, 2002, 11:49 GMT 12:49 UK
The high price of low-cost airlines
By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Online

Cheap flights could be about to get cheaper still, thanks to Easyjet's bargain deal for 120 new aeroplanes. But not everyone's happy - cut-price air travel is costing the Earth dear.

Booking a low-cost flight is seldom as cheap as the headline figure, with taxes, handling fees and surcharges. But there's one fee you won't find on your ticket - the cost to the planet.
Cheap air fares have broadened our travel horizons and spawned a trend for weekend breaks in exotic locations, but for the environment it is proving a nightmare.

Burn rate: Air travel produces more carbon dioxide per km travelled for each passenger than car travel
Passengers: Numbers passing through UK airports expected to double to 400m by 2030
Expansion: Plans are afoot to expand Britain's airports and maybe build new ones, but firm decisions have not yet been made
Source: Aviation and Global Climate Change report

Air travel is growing globally at about 5% a year and by 2030 the number of Britons flying is expected to more than double.

At the forefront of this revolution are the low-cost, no-frills carriers such as Ryanair, Easyjet and Buzz, which are growing at a phenomenal rate.

In June, Easyjet passenger numbers were up more than 50% on the same month last year. Ryanair increased by 34% and Go saw an incredible 72% rise.

The lesson learned from these airlines, especially post-11 September, is as clear as it is simple - the cheaper your fares, the more people will fly.

The result has been a price war which has sucked in flag carriers such as British Airways.

Now Easyjet is promising further price slashing, following its deal to buy 120 new planes. The company claims to have secured such a good deal, it will pass on cost-savings to passengers.

All of which is great news for holidaymakers, who account for almost three-quarters of air passengers.

 Easyjet plane
120 more in the pipeline
But if air travel is allowed to grow unchecked in this way, it will spell disaster for the planet, say environmentalists.

More flights mean bigger, busier airports, which in turn means more noise and growing problems with air quality for those who live and work close to airports.

But perhaps the biggest concern is the effect on global warming. Burning aviation fuel releases carbon dioxide (CO2) into the environment, causing the Earth to heat up.

Clouding the issue

And aircraft burn a lot - one return flight from the United Kingdom to Florida produces, per passenger, as much CO2 as a year's driving by the average British motorist, according to environmental campaign groups.

One thing is for sure - longer queues
Flying also releases nitrogen oxides and sulphur oxides, and even the vapour trails - contrails - left by planes are thought to be a hazard. It's been suggested that they add to the insulating effect of cirrus clouds on our climate.

The problem for environmentalists is that while efforts are being made to cut CO2 emissions from cars and industry, nothing is being done to rein in the airlines.

While travellers in the UK do pay an Airport Passenger Tax, there is no tax on aviation fuel, which allows airlines to be wasteful. Also, no VAT is charged on airline tickets.

Expectations raised

The situation is unsustainable, says Simon Bishop, who is about to publish a report on sustainable aviation.

Stansted is planning for 10m more passengers
"Lower prices have raised people's expectations - we now all want to fly abroad for a short break, and do so several times a year. But the government is doing nothing to inform people of the environmental impact of flying," says Mr Bishop, of the Institute of Public Policy Research.

The tax advantages mean that, in effect, the aviation industry is being subsidised to the tune of about £6bn a year in the UK, he says.

In 1992, 3.5% of global warming was attributed to flying, yet by 2050 the UN thinks this will rise to 7%. Optimists, including Easyjet, pin their hopes on technology to make planes more efficient.

Easyjet is developing an environmental policy "based on buying new aircraft".

 Petrol pump
You pay tax at the pump, but airlines don't
"This will mean our planes are more efficient, quieter and have less environmental impact," said a company spokeswoman.

But progress here is being outstripped by the growth in passenger demands, says Mr Bishop. The result is that air travel will undo much of the good work done by the Kyoto protocol to curb pollution elsewhere.

Easyjet also says rather than expanding the air travel market, it is attracting many passengers who would normally use other airlines. And it rejects the idea of a tax on aviation fuel, saying passengers are already pay through the airport tax.

But if the environmental lobby get their way, in future we could be taking a few more holidays at home. Skegness anyone?

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