“Insatiable” desire for travel bad news for climate change, as aviation sector grows faster than fuel efficiency improvements
By Sophie Yeo
The world’s addiction to flying shows no signs of slowing, despite increasing concerns over the industry’s impact on climate change.
New data from the Worldwatch Institute reveals that the number of people taking flights in 2012 hit 2,957 million, a 4.7% increase on 2011.
That’s over nine times the population of the USA, and triple the number of people flying in 1986. Leading plane manufacturer Boeing predicts world passenger numbers and air cargo traffic will rise 5% annually until 2032.
In 2012, aviation produced 689 million tonnes of CO2, or around 2% of the global total. A 2009 paper in the Atmospheric Environment journal calculated was responsible for 4.9% of manmade climate change.
“The desire for travel is insatiable. We love to see foreign countries and if we can afford to do it we will,” Guy Turner, chief economist at Bloomberg New Energy Finance, told RTCC.
“Air technology is improving so they’re getting quieter, more efficient, which is allowing people to travel more and more as their wealth increases.”
International flights are responsible for the majority of air miles travelled. In 2012, while only 39% of passengers were on board international flights, they accounted for 62% of the overall distance travelled because of the greater number of kilometres clocked up by each flight.
Air travel punches above its weight as far as environmental impact is concerned, since emitting CO2 high up in the atmosphere has a greater greenhouse impact than on the ground, yet policy attempts to control the industry are as slow as they are acrimonious.
Last year, attempts to regulate the industry through a carbon trading or offsetting scheme fell through at the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s (ICAO) meeting in Montreal, and will not be discussed again until 2016.
This is in spite of warnings from scientists that a market-based mechanism is the most effective way to regulate the emissions from the industry.
Meanwhile, the expansion in unlikely to stop any time soon, with the world’s commercial aeroplane fleet expected to explode to 36,500 carriers by 2032, according to forecasts by aircraft manufacturer Airbus, or to more than 41,000 according to their rival Boeing.
The UK is currently debating a controversial extra runway at either Heathrow or Gatwick airport, three years after previous plans were shelved.
According to ICAO, this fleet has already risen by 33% since 2003, up to a total of 25,252 aircraft. The US dominates this market, with a total 6,000 in service, followed by China, which has just fewer than 2,000. Most of these planes are used to carry passengers.
The growth of the industry has only ever stalled on two occasions: the September 11 attack in 2001 and just after the onset of the global financial crisis in 2008.
Efficiency not enough
The sector will continue to play a disproportionate role in the worsening climate crisis over coming years; Turner points out that improvements in the efficiency of airlines is not enough to combat the growth projected over the coming years
“Yes, aircraft are getting more efficient, but the increase in the demand for travel is growing faster than the improvements in efficiency of the aircraft. The net effect will be a gradual increase in emissions from aircraft,” he said.
“The only way the industry can achieve a stabilisation of emissions or even a reduction would be by offsetting emissions by paying for emission reductions elsewhere in the economy.”
Recent research by Bloomberg New Energy Finance indicated that the cost of the credits required to meet 50% of the aviation industry’s needs would cost less 0.5% of the industry’s total revenue.
But while economically achievable, co-author Turner added that offsetting enough emissions to achieve the aviation sector’s goal of carbon neutral growth by 2020 “is not trivial to implement”, and would require a gesture of political will from all the countries and airlines involved.