Trudeau’s plan to cut air­fares con­tra­dicts cli­mate-change goal

Toronto Star - - OPINION - Thomas Walkom Thomas Walkom’s col­umn ap­pears Mon­day, Wed­nes­day and Fri­day.

As part of its ef­fort to help the mid­dle class, Justin Trudeau’s Lib­eral gov­ern­ment wants lower air­fares so more peo­ple can fly.

But as part of its ef­fort to com­bat cli­mate change, it wants higher air­fares so fewer peo­ple will fly. This is what is known as a con­tra­dic­tion.

This par­tic­u­lar con­tra­dic­tion was made man­i­fest Thurs­day when Trans­port Min­is­ter Marc Garneau un­veiled the gov­ern­ment’s new air­line pol­icy in Mon­treal.

Garneau pledged to weaken Canada’s strict own­er­ship rules in or­der to let for­eign in­vestors hold a big­ger chunk of Cana­dian air­lines.

He said two par­tic­u­lar air­line ven­tures hop­ing to take ad­van­tage of weaker for­eign own­er­ship rules may do so im­me­di­ately with­out wait­ing for Par­lia­ment to change the law.

He said he was mak­ing the change to en­cour­age com­pe­ti­tion in the highly mo­nop­o­lized Cana­dian air­line in­dus­try and re­duce fares.

“This will lead to more op­tions for Cana­di­ans and al­low the cre­ation of new ul­tra low-cost air­lines in Canada,” he said.

As a 2012 Trans­port Department re­port notes, ul­tralow fares will also sig­nif­i­cantly boost the num­ber of peo­ple who choose to travel by air. That’s be­cause air travel is ex­cep­tion­ally price sen­si­tive. A small re­duc­tion in fares can cause an out­sized in­crease in the num­ber of peo­ple want­ing to fly.

In a per­fect world, this would not be a prob­lem. But in a world suf­fer­ing from cli­mate change, it is.

Avi­a­tion fuel gives off car­bon when burned. It also gives off other par­tic­u­lates that, be­cause they are de­posited in the up­per at­mos­phere, con­trib­ute to global warm­ing.

True, air travel is a rel­a­tively mi­nor con­trib­u­tor to cli­mate change. The David Suzuki Foun­da­tion es­ti­mates it is re­spon­si­ble for be­tween 4 and 9 per cent of global green­house gas emis­sions.

In Canada, ac­cord­ing to the 2012 trans­port department re­port, do­mes­tic air travel on its own ac­counts for just 1 per cent of car­bon emis­sions.

But these fig­ures are on the rise. The Suzuki foun­da­tion reck­ons the car­bon diox­ide emis­sions from international avi­a­tion have grown by 83 per cent since 1990. The trans­port department re­port says Cana­dian emis­sions rose be­tween 2001and 2010 in spite of suc­cess­ful ef­forts by air­lines to in­crease fuel ef­fi­ciency.

The Trudeau gov­ern­ment says it is com­mit­ted to re­duc­ing Cana­dian emis­sions over­all. To that end, it has promised a car­bon pric­ing regime that, among other things. would raise the price of avi­a­tion fuel to dis­cour­age peo­ple from fly­ing.

This, after all, is the en­tire point of car­bon pric­ing: to change be­hav­iour by mak­ing prac­tices that con­trib­ute to cli­mate change more costly.

Garneau, a se­nior mem­ber of Trudeau’s cabi­net, un­der­stands this. In his Mon­treal speech, he spoke glow­ingly of the gov­ern­ment’s mea­sures to bat­tle cli­mate change.

So what gives? Why, in this in­stance at least, is the gov­ern­ment work­ing against it­self by si­mul­ta­ne­ously tak­ing ac­tions to both lower and raise air­line fares?

There are two plau­si­ble ex­pla­na­tions. One is that the Lib­eral gov­ern­ment doesn’t mean it when it says it is com­mit­ted to fight­ing cli­mate change.

In­deed, it is pos­si­ble that none of the gov­ern­ments that signed the Paris agree­ment on cli­mate change meant it. The United Na­tions re­ported Thurs­day that the car­bon re­duc­tion tar­gets promised in that ac­cord are so low that even if the sig­na­to­ries meet them, they won’t be able to pre­vent a global cli­mate catas­tro­phe.

The other ex­pla­na­tion for the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment’s cu­ri­ous ap­proach to cli­mate change and air­line pol­icy is that it just hasn’t thought things out.

Long-dis­tance air travel can never be elim­i­nated, par­tic­u­larly in a big coun­try like Canada. But a gov­ern­ment se­ri­ous about cli­mate change could fo­cus on other, more en­ergy-ef­fi­cient forms of trans­porta­tion, such as buses and trains for short-haul trips.

In his Mon­treal speech, Garneau de­voted one line to that peren­nial wheeze: high-fre­quency train ser­vice be­tween Que­bec City and Wind­sor.

I ex­pect Trudeau’s gov­ern­ment, like those be­fore it, will balk when it comes to do­ing some­thing on this or any­thing else that might sig­nif­i­cantly im­prove pas­sen­ger rail ser­vice in Canada.

But when global warm­ing is taken into ac­count, it’s not a bad idea. Cer­tainly it’s bet­ter than en­cour­ag­ing more peo­ple to fly.

One pos­si­ble ex­pla­na­tion for the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment’s cu­ri­ous ap­proach to cli­mate change and air­line pol­icy is that it sim­ply hasn’t thought things out

TOBY MELVILLE/REUTERS FILE PHOTO

A small re­duc­tion in air­fares can cause an out­sized in­crease in the num­ber of peo­ple want­ing to fly, Thomas Walkom writes.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.