Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Aircraft emissions

Aircraft emissions

The dirty sky
Jun 8th 2006
From The Economist print edition

Governments need to take action to cut aircraft emissions
ALL big ideas start life on the fringes of debate. Very often it takes a shocking event to move them into the mainstream. Until last year interest in climate change was espoused mainly by scientists and green lobbyists—and the few politicians they had badgered into paying attention. But since Hurricane Katrina, something seems to have changed, particularly in America. Nobody knows whether the hurricane really had anything to do with the earth warming. But for the first time less verdant voters and big business had a clearer idea about the “extreme weather events” whose increasing frequency scientists had been talking about.

There are plenty of anecdotal signs of change: Britain's pro-business Tories have turned green; Al Gore is back in fashion in America; hybrid cars no longer get stared at. Companies are beginning to take action (see article) and encouraging governments to do the same. Europe already has an emissions-trading system (ETS) for its five dirtiest industries. In America, although the Bush administration still resists federal legislation, more and more states do not. Even China has brought in a myriad of measures, including fuel-economy rules 20% tighter than America's.

So far the political rows about global warming have centred on two polluters, smoggy factories and dirty cars. Now a new front is being opened up—in the skies. Next month the European Parliament will vote on whether to extend its emissions-trading system to airlines. If it decides in favour, the whole industry will feel the impact, for it will affect not just European airlines but all those that fly into and out of the EU. Talk about this prospect soured the International Air Transport Association's annual meeting this week in Paris, where the lords of the skies would have otherwise congratulated themselves for surviving a wretched few years of terrorism threats, disease scares and rising fuel prices. But whatever happens in the EU, the airlines look set to face vociferous demands that they should pay for their emissions (see article).

A few clouds in the sky
In some ways, the airlines are an odd target for greens. They produce only around 3% of the world's man-made carbon emissions. Surface transport, by contrast, produces 22%. Europe's merchant ships spew out around a third more carbon than aircraft do, and nobody is going after them. And unlike cars—potent symbols of individualism (and, some would say, individual selfishness)—airlines are public transport, jamming in as many people as they can into each plane. By shipping hordes of ordinary people around the globe for not very much money, they have improved the lives of millions.

What's more, many air travellers cannot easily switch. Car drivers can hop on the train or the bus, but transatlantic travellers can't row from London to New York. Nor can aircraft fuel be swapped for a green alternative. Car drivers can buy electro-petrol hybrids but aircraft are, for now, stuck with kerosene, because its energy-density makes it the only practical fuel to carry around in the air.

Yet in other ways, airlines are a fine target. They pay no tax on fuel for international flights, and therefore escape the “polluter pays” principle even more niftily than other forms of transport. Their emissions are especially damaging, too—partly because the nitrogen oxides from jet-engine exhausts help create ozone, a potent greenhouse gas, and partly because the pretty trails that aircraft leave behind them help make the clouds that can intensify the greenhouse effect. And the industry's energy consumption has been growing faster than that of other polluting industries. Air transport will soon be central, not marginal, to the emissions issue.

Education, not regulation
What, if anything, should be done? As usual, there are dangers on both sides. Excessive regulation would unnecessarily restrict individual choice and throttle an industry that makes both rich and poor countries better off. On the other hand, airlines no less than any other industry must pay for pollution.

As the debate grows, some flyers may reconsider their ways. Put frankly, air travel makes a mockery of many people's attempts to live a green life. Somebody who wants to reduce his “carbon footprint” can bicycle to work, never buy aerosols and turn off his air-conditioner—and still blow away all this virtue on a couple of long flights. And, although other forms of transport cannot easily replace flying, demand for many flights is sensitive to price. A quarter of flying is business-related; many of those journeys are essential, but others achieve only marginally more than a telephone call or videoconference. As for stag-nights in Prague and student spring breaks in Jamaica—well, the gangs of drunken revellers probably wouldn't notice if they were in Blackpool or Daytona Beach instead, as indeed many were a decade ago.

However, addressing individuals' consciences won't go that far. Air pollution is a collective problem, which in this case requires government action—or, to be more accurate, a change in policy. As it stands, the market is skewed in favour of air travel; the aim should be to make it more balanced. Two approaches are on offer. Some think the best way to limit emissions is to tax them; others argue for a system that sets a cap on pollution, and lets polluters trade the right to emit.

This newspaper has long argued for a global carbon tax as a reasonable way to tax all forms of pollution. But there is no sign of governments embracing that idea. One of the strongest arguments for aircraft emissions being dealt with by a trading system is practical: a system already exists. Europe's ETS has many obvious flaws (see article). Given that it is the world's first serious attempt to cut emissions internationally, that is not surprising. The world can learn from its imperfections, and design a better scheme for airlines.

Slowly, businessmen and politicians are coming to agree with scientists. If this generation does not tackle climate change, its descendants will not think much of it. That means raising costs for all sources of pollution. Even those deceptively cheap weekend breaks cannot be exempt.