The in­sid­i­ous cli­mate dam­age fly­ing be­neath the radar

Boom­ing air­line sec­tor ex­empt from cli­mate deals — and our aware­ness, says Peter Boyer

Mercury (Hobart) - - TALKING POINT - Peter Boyer, who be­gan his jour­nal­ism ca­reer at the Mer­cury, spe­cialises in the sci­ence and pol­i­tics of cli­mate change.

THINGS are go­ing great for air­lines world­wide, says Ja­son Rabi­nowitz, a self­de­scribed “avi­a­tion geek” based in New York.

Rabi­nowitz re­ports that the in­dus­try ex­pects travel de­mand to grow by 6 per cent in 2019, and that air­craft mak­ers are in­un­dated with thou­sands of orders. Avi­a­tion is now big­ger, richer, sex­ier, more pop­u­lar than it ever was.

This is all very ex­cit­ing. Noone is im­mune from the lure of air travel — bustling air­ports and big jet en­gines, the lure of ex­otic places and the power to be trans­ported there in a mat­ter of hours. It has be­come so en­trenched in our cul­ture that for some it’s al­most rou­tine.

The bug is catch­ing ev­ery­where. Busi­ness and leisure travel in China, In­dia, Brazil, Rus­sia and other de­vel­op­ing economies has driven a dou­bling in air­line pas­sen­ger num­bers since 2005, to a mind-numb­ing 4.3 bil­lion bums on seats in 2018, or nearly 12 mil­lion ev­ery day.

In­dus­try pro­jec­tions have num­bers dou­bling again by the late 2030s, driven by ris­ing Asian mid­dle-class in­comes and cheaper fares, a re­sult of com­pe­ti­tion and more fu­el­ef­fi­cient planes.

All of which ex­plains the huge de­mand for new air­lin­ers. Hun­dreds are be­ing added to fleets ev­ery year. A sin­gle Boe­ing model is now be­ing pro­duced at the rate of 1.4 planes ev­ery day, and the com­pany ex­pects to come close to two a day in 2019.

This kind of ex­po­nen­tial growth is the dream of ev­ery gov­ern­ment min­is­ter and com­pany ex­ec­u­tive, in­clud­ing tourism lead­ers like Luke Martin, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Tas­ma­nia’s Tourism In­dus­try Coun­cil.

Be­fore the Gell River fire be­came page 1 news, Martin wrote a pre­scient ar­ti­cle high­light­ing the neg­a­tive im­pact of wild­fire on tourism (Talk­ing Point, De­cem­ber 29). He de­clared his in­dus­try’s sup­port for wilder­ness val­ues and the need for more cli­mate-savvy tourism pol­icy.

One ex­ten­sion of this dis­cus­sion would be to look at the im­pact of tourism on the en­vi­ron­ment. Martin pointed out that the in­dus­try is aware of lo­cal im­pact and seeks to min­imise it. But it would seem less aware of an­other im­pact, more wide­spread and more in­sid­i­ous.

The boom­ing avi­a­tion in­dus­try is pow­ered by fos­sil fuel. Last year, flights glob­ally con­sumed 288 mil­lion tonnes of it, emit­ting 907 mil­lion tonnes of car­bon diox­ide, or 29 tonnes ev­ery sec­ond.

Tak­ing ac­count of the high­alti­tude im­pact of these emis­sions, this amounts to at least 2.5 per cent of the to­tal from all sources. The in­dus­try claims the fig­ure is about 2 per cent, but ei­ther way that pro­por­tion is go­ing to grow as other sources di­min­ish, such as coal-fired elec­tric­ity.

There are some mit­i­gat­ing fac­tors. New air­craft are about 10 per cent more fuel-ef­fi­cient than those made in 2010, and un­der a global scheme start­ing this month the in­dus­try has agreed that from 2021 to 2035 it will off­set 2.6 bil­lion tonnes of car­bon diox­ide, or 173 mil­lion tonnes a year.

But given that air traf­fic is ex­pected to be dou­ble to­day’s level within two decades, these de­vel­op­ments can­not cut

emis­sions. Slow­ing their rate of growth is the best we can hope for.

In­ter­na­tional avi­a­tion is gov­erned by a 74-year-old con­ven­tion that ex­empts it from the gov­ern­ment fuel taxes that ap­ply to other trans­port modes. The same hands-off-avi­a­tion ap­proach saw the in­dus­try ex­cluded from cli­mate agree­ments, in­clud­ing Ky­oto in 1997 and Paris in 2015.

Last Oc­to­ber’s re­port by the In­ter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change on lim­it­ing warm­ing raised the prob­lem of avi­a­tion emis­sions, but of­fered lit­tle in the way of a so­lu­tion other than re­plac­ing short­haul flights with very fast elec­tric trains.

We all must bear some re­spon­si­bil­ity. For the record, in the past decade I have flown to over­seas des­ti­na­tions six times, rais­ing the awk­ward mat­ter of hypocrisy. But I am slow­ing down, and although there are many for­eign places I’d still like to see, I’ll be con­tent if I see none of them.

Ob­vi­ously I and mil­lions of oth­ers should fly less of­ten and over shorter dis­tances, in­form our­selves of avi­a­tion’s car­bon foot­print and pay more for ef­fec­tive off­sets. Prefer­ably we should stop fly­ing al­to­gether and use al­ter­na­tives such as land or sea trans­port, video con­fer­ences and lo­cal hol­i­days.

This won’t hap­pen at scale without some sort of co­er­cion, and cheap flights have made that all but im­pos­si­ble. Pic­ture the re­sult: would-be trav­ellers, egged on by tourism, avi­a­tion and all man­ner of op­pos­ing po­lit­i­cal and cor­po­rate in­ter­ests, vent­ing their fury on hap­less gov­ern­ments.

Be­sides, politi­cians, busi­ness lead­ers and all the other string-pullers are per­son­ally ad­dicted to avi­a­tion, for both their con­ve­nience and, as they would say, their na­tion’s econ­omy. Short of cli­mate catas­tro­phe, there can be no res­o­lu­tion to this un­til we learn to fly without fos­sil fuel.

Mass air travel is cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance writ large. We con­tinue to take to the skies in num­bers even while know­ing that it helps sig­nif­i­cantly to desta­bilise the cli­mate. No won­der ev­ery­thing to do with cli­mate change is so in­tractable.

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