With WTM’s The Future of Aviation session set to analyse air travel’s outlook, Gary Noakes takes a look at its current state – and what predictions we can make.
Air travel and the green lobby are increasingly at loggerheads, so could it be that flying, along with smoking, will one day be seen as something that past generations naively enjoyed to their detriment?
Just as tobacco firms are now persuading us smoking really is bad, and that we should instead buy their new vaping products, at least one airline chief executive has said we should fly less.
The concept of “flight shaming” is creeping into our psyche and, speaking in September, Emirates’ chief executive Tim Clark says the industry “had to face reality”.
Clark accepts the need to ask ourselves whether travel is really necessary and to question how we do it. “I am not disagreeing with that,” he says.
Today’s The Future of Aviation session at WTM London will address the challenges associated with increased demand for air travel and growing awareness of the impact it has on our environment.
Aviation produces far fewer total emissions than that of road traffic, but that is no excuse for complacency. According to the European Commission (EC), aviation accounts for less than 3% of global emissions, a seemingly insignificant figure, but, as the EC points out: “If global aviation was a country, it would rank in the top 10 emitters.”
It adds: “Someone flying from London to New York and back generates roughly the same level of emissions as the average person in the EU does by heating their home for a whole year.”
What’s more, while other industries such as power generation are doing their bit to be cleaner, air travel is expanding at a rate that overrides gains made by more efficient, cleaner jet engines. By next year, the EC estimates global aviation emissions will be 70% higher than they were just 15 years ago. Looking further ahead, ICAO forecasts are that aviation emissions will grow 300-700% by 2050.
“If global aviation was a country, it would rank in the top 10 emitters”
Figures like this mean the airline industry cannot hide behind its argument that it only produces a fraction of global CO2 – particularly when the fuel it buys is not taxed or subject to VAT.
Justin Francis, co-founder of Responsible Travel and one of the session’s speakers, believes airlines are “getting a free ride, because the ‘polluter pays’ principle has not been applied”. He is critical of the European Emissions Trading System, as it only covers flights in the European Economic Area, and warns electric aircraft development will not come soon enough to offer significant emissions reductions.
“In the meantime, there is no alternative to a reduction in demand for aviation until we can decarbonise air travel,” he adds. “For most people, this will change holiday patterns. We might take fewer holidays with flights. It might mean more holidays closer to home, or just fewer but longer holidays involving a flight. For some, it might rule out a flying holiday altogether.”
Francis proposes a global tax on aviation based on a reformed version of the UK Air Passenger Duty, with funds ring-fenced for research into alternatives. It would penalise premium and domestic air passengers whose use of space on aircraft is more inefficient and who usually carry heavier luggage, increasing fuel burn.
A Committee on Climate Change report entitled Behaviour Change, Public Engagement and Net Zero, is also heading in this direction. Author Dr Richard Carmichael believes sensitivity about pricing once-a-year fliers out of the sky “has discouraged greater taxation on flights and policy has not addressed rising aviation demand”.
He points out that half of all UK households do not fly at all and 70% of all UK flights are taken by 15% of people. His report concludes: “Those who pollute most could most easily afford to pay more.”
Carmichael proposes an “air miles levy” for leisure travel that escalates with the miles travelled rather than number of flights taken; meaning those who take their annual short-haul break are not overly penalised. It would be facilitated via a database compiled using flight booking and passport details and take class of travel into account.
A three-to-four year accounting period would allow for the occasional long-haul flight as part of the total, Carmichael believes.
“An air miles levy is a promising option if policy objectives are to limit rising demand for flying in a way which does not make it inaccessible to lower-income households,” he says.
But even assuming some sort of global agreement is reached and non-fossil fuel engine projects then receive the requisite funding, how far can this technology take us in future? Another panellist, Neil Cloughley, managing director of hybrid technology start-up Faradair Aerospace, which is developing a small regional aircraft, urges caution.
“The technology is coming, but are we going to be flying electric aircraft to Marbella in the next three years? No, I’m afraid not,” he says. However, he believes that in 30 years, things could be different. “Whether it is battery-powered or something like hydrogen is an interesting debate. I personally believe there will be a breakthrough.”
Meanwhile, he believes advances in the hybrid approach will make taxiing under electric power and for smaller aircraft, even take-off under non-kerosene power, eventually possible.
“Imagine if you turned off every aircraft’s auxiliary power unit at Heathrow and towed every aircraft with electric tugs to the holding point, then fired up the engines just before take-off; the emissions savings would be enormous.”
These may be small steps, but, as Cloughley points out, the Toyota Prius started a hybrid car revolution. However, as he also highlights, a real breakthrough is far off and meanwhile, the travel industry must find a way to assuage its clients’ guilt about flying.