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Air Travel and
compiled by Linda Gamlin
and 2020, the number of people passing through UK airports is due to double from
180 million per year to 400 million per year, according to Government figures.
To meet this demand would require the equivalent, according to some estimates,
of FOUR new Heathrow airports and EIGHT new Gatwicks.
is enthusiastically supporting this gross expansion of air travel at the same
time as saying it wants to take action against climate change. They don’t seem
to realise that they are contradicting themselves. The plan is to expand almost
every airport in Britain and build huge new concrete runways across green fields
at Stansted, Birmingham, Heathrow and Edinburgh.
is ignoring its own advisors - the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution,
the Environmental Audit Committee, and the Sustainable Development Commission -
who are all saying that this is a dangerous and destructive policy.
Jet travel is
terrible for climate change: not only do planes use a lot of fuel, and therefore
pump out tons of carbon dioxide - but the altitude at which they fly, and the
other exhaust gases they produce, means that the actual impact on climate change
is THREE TIMES what it would seem to be from the carbon dioxide alone. You can
work out the real impact of any flight at the Choose Climate website on
Aviation is the
fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions – although it accounts for
only 3.5% of our emissions today, at current predicted growth rates, it could
account for up to 20% by 2030. Aviation is not covered by the Kyoto Protocol
(because the countries couldn't decide how to allocate CO2 emissions since
aircraft fly between different nations).
If you want
more detail about the effects of aircraft emissions, see the box below.
that vapour trail?
produce three gases that contribute to global warming: H2O (water vapour),
CO2 (carbon dioxide) and NOx (various different oxides of nitrogen). The
first two are produced by burning the fuel (kerosene). The NOx come from
burning nitrogen that is naturally in the atmosphere. Normally, nitrogen is
inert stuff, and doesn't get altered when things burn, but the extremely
high temperatures at which aircraft engines run are a different story – they
turn nitrogen into nitrogen oxides.
vapour is what creates condensation trails (contrails) - clouds of tiny ice
crystals. Contrails disperse and sometimes cover the whole sky - over
Germany, for example, the average coverage is about 6%.
do reflect a little sunlight away from earth, which has a cooling effect,
but unfortunately, like carbon dioxide, they also reflect back to earth a
great deal of infra-red (heat) radiation which would otherwise escape to
space. Overall, the contrails have a warming effect.
emissions from aircraft have an extremely complex effect on the atmosphere
and on climate, but the bottom line is that they push temperatures up. For
more details see the 'Choose Climate' website (
commercial plane can burn over 200 tons of kerosene fuel in one flight. If
you look at the 'Choose Climate' website you can calculate the volume of CO2
emitted per passenger for any given flight, and compare this to the level of
carbon dioxide emissions per person per year that could be permitted if we
were all living in a sustainable climate-friendly way.
rough estimate is that a plane uses about as much fuel, and therefore
produces about as much carbon dioxide as would every passenger driving one
car the same distance. However, you need to multiply this BY THREE to get
the real impact on climate change, because the water vapour and NOx treble
the effect of the carbon dioxide. (This calculation comes from the "Special
Report on Aviation" published by the "Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change" (IPCC) in April 1999. Note that trebling is an approximation - the
detailed calculations are difficult because the effects of NOx are so
complex - the best estimates are that the effect of air flight on climate
change is 2-5 times greater than that of the carbon dioxide emitted.)
comparison, trains produce about 1/3rd as much CO2 per passenger-kilometer
as if each passenger went by car - and trains have the great advantage that
they could, ultimately, be run on renewable sources of electricity.
The mystery of
cheap flights (& that means all flights)
sold at the normal rate are under-priced – the cost of the ticket bears no
relation to the true environmental cost.
Given that they
use so much fuel, why on earth are flights so cheap? One reason is that no tax
is paid on aircraft fuel. A
litre of fuel costs the
one fifth of the price at a roadside petrol pump (which is also why flown-in
fruit and vegetables are economically feasible).
And because airports and airlines are a prestige symbol, they are heavily
subsidised by governments. The UK Government is currently subsidising the
aviation industry to the tune of around £7 billion/ year
Oil itself is
ridiculously cheap. If you think about where oil originated, it took many
millions of years for tiny creatures in the sea to capture sunlight energy and
CO2 and store the carbon in oil reserves - yet we pay only for the cost of the
oil. Because it is not truly valued, and priced appropriately, we squander this
flights are cheap because the atmosphere is a global commons, free for everyone
(in theory) to use. The emissions from aircraft impose a great burden on the
world's climate which will be borne by everyone, including those who have never
flown in their lives. The highest price will be paid in some of the poorest
countries of the world, such as Bangladesh, which are vulnerable to storm
damage, drought or rising sea-level. In economists’ jargon, we need to "internalise"
these costs, which are currently "externalities".
that flights are cheap is because they are fuel-intensive, whereas other forms
of public transport, such as railways, are more labour-intensive. People's
labour is taxed heavily through income tax. If we increased fuel taxes, we could
decrease labour taxes, and train tickets could become cheaper.
Many of the
poorest in the UK are suffering from fuel poverty, because heating fuel is taxed
- yet air fuel is not taxed. According to figures from Caroline Lucas MEP (her
website is well worth a look), those who don't fly are subsidising those who do,
to the tune of £183 per person nationwide.
What about the
local impact on our environment ?
more runways, many more flights – forgetting climate change for a minute, what
effect does all this have on the environment right here and now?
aircraft has genuine and significant health effects, as does the fear of
crashes. In addition, a recent study by researchers at the University of London
shows that the reading ability of children living under flight paths is worse
than that of children in similar economic circumstances elsewhere. The European
Court has decreed that night flights deprive people of their human right to a
decent night's sleep. Overall, the poor are more likely to live under flight
There is still
some unspoiled countryside left in our country, and this is precious and
irreplacable. Noise ruins everyday life, holidays, weekends away - everything.
In a small island such as ours, where we already have many airports, plus the
nerve-shattering noise of RAF training flights in many rural areas, further
airport expansion is madness. If we spoil more and more of our own countryside,
and make it so noisy that there are no quiet green places to relax – then what ?
Well, you will just have to get on a plane to get away from it all…
So what can you
there are things we can do to improve the situation, firstly as informed
consumers, and secondly as campaigners.
as possible - DON'T FLY! Planes threaten to destroy the very world we want to
see and enjoy – coral reefs, for example.
Think hard about it before
you hop on a plane – is it really what you want to do? Regard air travel as a
privilege and a luxury, as it used to be, and still is for most of the world’s
train, not the plane: trains are much more environmentally-friendly, and over
distances of 200-300 miles, the train can be faster (from city centre to city
centre) than a journey that includes a flight. For excellent and detailed
information about train travel from the UK to Europe, within Europe, and even
across Asia, Africa, America, and Australasia, check out the website called at
‘The Man in Seat 61’ at
www.seat61.com. The website is run by Mark Smith, from Buckinghamshire who
‘as well as doing my own fair share of traveling around the world on trains,
ships, and other civilised forms of travel…have worked as a European rail agent
issuing tickets and advising other travel agents on train travel across Europe”.
He covers some travel by ship as well.
in the UK, or travel within Europe and go by train (so much less stressful – the
European trains are fast and luxurious.) Tell people with pride that you take
holidays close to home and travel by train.
business journey really necessary? Try telephone or video conferences instead of
flying to face to face meetings. There's a considerable saving in valuable time,
and costs, as well as the environmental benefits.
If you really must
fly on occasions, salve your conscience by making a donation to Climate Care
(see box below).
shopping, beware Food Miles. Remember "Eat food not oil": fruit out of season
may have traveled thousands of miles. (Let me know if you don’t have a copy
of the Action Sheet on finding local food in Cambridge.) Fresh flowers
ostensibly trucked from Holland may have been flown to Holland from Africa.
Businesses can also help minimise climate change by using local suppliers where
possible, rather than overseas ones whose product is delivered by air freight.
are local movements opposed to airport expansion all over the country, and you
could join one or more of these – for example the campaigns against the
expansion of Stansted and Heathrow:
Campaign - See the website for a long list of ways to support the campaign. Stop
Stansted Expansion: PO Box 311, Takeley, Bishop's Stortford, Herts. CM22 6PY
Airport - Noise and pollution is already a big problem at Heathrow: in some
parts of London and the Thames Valley there is a plane landing every 90 seconds.
This lively campaign welcomes new people to get involved in its many activities.
HACAN ClearSkies: 13 Stockwell Road, London, SW9 9AU
There are also
campaign groups in Birmingham, the East Midlands, Coventry, Wolverhampton and
Manchester, and Swansea. Airport Watch is the umbrella body for all these
groups. You can register online for information on what is happening at
opposition to airports is useful – BUT it is vitally important also to build a
NATIONAL anti-airport expansions movement – “a genuinely joined-up, integrated
national campaign” as Caroline Lucas puts it. Only in that way can people resist
attempts to play one individual campaign off against another, with promises of
putting an airport in place A rather than place B.
campaign should require that the full cost of air travel be paid by travelers &
by the aviation industry. The aviation industry argues that such measures as
fuel taxes and emission charges put them at a competitive disadvantage compared
to those countries where no such tax or charge is levied. Action at the EU
level, or via a Simultaneous Policy initiative, is therefore vital.
A tax on
aviation fuel would require: either international consensus at the International
Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) or the renegotiation of thousands of
bilateral air service agreements. An Emissions Charge, by contrast, could be
levied by the EU alone on all flights arriving at, or departing from, EU
airports, irrespective of the nationality of the air carrier. It would therefore
be relatively easy to introduce, and would answer the concerns about
Another idea –
again from Caroline Lucas - let's have an Air Traffic Reduction Bill! As part of
that, we could ask that the Government imposes a tax on all domestic air
flights. (The US does it!) More realistic landing fees would also help. If
demand for air travel is managed, rather than allowed to grow in an uncontrolled
way, there will be no need for additional runways, let alone new airports.
coherent campaign about air travel, should highlight the ill-effects of
encouraging poor countries to base their economies heavily on tourism.
Miles schemes have perverse environmental effects: they encourage air travel
which otherwise might not take place. Boycott them, and encourage others to do
support fund-raising ideas that involve air travel – you know the kind of thing
– “please sponsor my trek up the Himalayas for charity”. If people want to find
interesting ways of raising funds for a 'good cause', it should be possible to
do it in an environmentally-responsible way,
for more public education on the impacts of aviation. Protest to newspapers and
television that constantly promote flying and exotic holidays (often alongside
reports about climate change!) Talk to people you know about the damage that air
travel does to the planet – it is possible to do this without being a killjoy,
if you approach the subject with humour. Stress the positive aspects of not
AIRPORT PLEDGE – at
This is a
petition with a difference - it contains the real threat that the people who
sign it will be active and determined. The organisers believe that if enough
people join the pledge, the risks of large scale opposition will force the
government to reconsider its plans.
Pledge shows the government the real threat it
faces from the
large number of people opposing this policy. The people who sign it say that ‘if
the government refusesto back away from its policy, I will take personal action
to block airport expansion and to prevent companies from supporting and funding
people take is their personal choice but the pledge helps them with updates and
ideas of what they can do.
The pledge is
managed by a broad coalition of environment and transport groups including
Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, People and Planet, and Transport 2000. The
pledge is hosted by the climate change campaign network, Rising Tide. They can
send you a pile of pledges to pass on to your friends or your workmates, or
stock in your local shops and cafes. Alternatively you can download the pledge
to print from the website and make your own copies:
You could also
help to fund this excellent campaign: The Pledge is running on a shoestring with
the help of volunteers. Donations will assist with the cost of mailings and
printing new pledges. Please send cheques to 16B Cherwell Street, Oxford, OX4
241097) – make cheques payable to: 'Airport Pledge c/o Rising Tide'.
Easing your conscience
There are several
different organisations that claim to be able to make you ‘carbon neutral’ –
in other words, to take some money from you and use it to compensate for all
the carbon dioxide you emit. If you book a holiday with a right-on
ecotourism outfit, they may suggest this as a way to compensate for your
flight. So is this the answer to all our problems? Not quite.
Most of the ‘carbon
neutral’ organisations plant trees, which, when they are young and growing,
absorb carbon dioxide from the air and use it to make cellulose and lignin
(wood). This is sometimes called ‘carbon sequestration’. A tree trunk is a
carbon bank, or ‘carbon sink’ in the current jargon. The carbon stays safely
locked up for the lifetime of that tree (and afterwards, if the tree is cut
but not burned – burning sends the carbon back into the air as carbon
You may be aware of some
controversy around ‘carbon neutral’ organisations. There have been ome
really terrible schemes that involved cutting down existing tracts of
tropical rainforest and replacing them with fast-growing non-native trees.
Clearly this is very damaging environmentally, and such schemes have richly
deservedly the bad publicity they have received. But this doesn't mean that
all tree-planting schemes are misguided. If native trees are used, and the
land was already cleared of trees, and is not particularly useful in other
ways - marginal agricultural land, for example - then such schemes have some
But it is important to
recognise that, on a worldwide scale, this isn’t a magic solution to the
climate change problem – absorbing all the carbon dioxide we are releasing
would require much too much forest area. The world would turn into one huge
gloomy Forestry Commission plantation. And mature forests no longer soak up
carbon dioxide – it is only while the trees are growing that it works.
Climate Care (www.co2.org)
is one of the
better organisations in this area, with a number of different and well
thought-out projects to offset carbon emissions. One is re-planting an area
of poor agricultural land that was once rainforest, within what is
officially a National Park in Uganda. They are using native trees, working
closely with local people, providing employment, and aiming to extend the
habitat of the chimpanzees in the nearby surviving forests. Other projects
include distributing energy-saving light bulbs to low-income households in
South Africa, and capturing methane (a real baddie – much worse for global
warming than carbon dioxide) from disused coal mines in the UK and using it
to generate electricity. The Climate Care people give the impression working
with great integrity.
If you want to make
amends for your past carbon emissions (which are still floating about
there in the atmosphere, doing their worst), and salve your conscience over
current ones that you can't avoid, Climate Care seem a good choice. But it
is vital to realise that this isn’t nearly enough in global terms – if you
want to halt climate change, you do need to significantly reduce your
personal emissions as well.
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websites for some of the organisations and individuals mentioned above:
Climate Care -
The Man in Seat
Rising Tide -
Friends of the
People & Planet