Rise above the hot air and carry on flying

By Anatole Kaletsky (THE TIMES, 11/01/07):

For once, I agree and sympathise with Tony Blair. Like the Prime Minister, I do a great deal of flying, for business and pleasure, and I haven’t the slightest intention of altering my travel plans in any way. Mr Blair’s one mistake in flying to Florida for a family holiday was to offer a half-baked apology. He would have much done more good, for the global environment and for the quality of public debate in Britain, by sticking to his original position, pithily summarised by The Guardian’s front-page headline on Tuesday: “Carry on flying, says Blair — science will save the planet”.

This headline was meant ironically, but it offered an excellent summary of what should be done about climate change. We should carry on flying as much as we want, but we should also create economic conditions to ensure that science does “save the planet”. More precisely, we should express our justified anxiety about climate change not by feeling guilty or changing our lifestyles, but by putting in place incentives to reduce carbon emissions, not only in Britain and Europe, but much more importantly in China, Indonesia and Brazil.

Why is more flying compatible with a serious attitude to climate change, given aircraft emissions are the fastest-growing cause of global warming? The answer breaks down into four parts — arithmetic, technology, economics and politics.

Start with simple arithmetic. Although they are growing quickly in percentage terms, aircraft emissions start at such a low level that they will remain an almost imperceptible factor in global warming, even 50 years from now. According to the figures in the Stern review, aviation currently generates just 1.6 per cent of global emissions. Assuming that recent rapid growth rates remained unchecked this would increase to 2.5 per cent by 2050.

Because aircraft emit carbon high in the atmosphere, the greenhouse effects are stronger than they are on Earth, by a multiple of 2 to 4 times. Thus, the true contribution of aircraft to global warming according to Stern is today about 3 per cent (with an upper estimate of 6 per cent) and could rise to about 5 per cent in 2050 (with an upper estimate of 10 per cent).

Aircraft emissions , therefore, are a tiny contributor to global warming — far smaller than road transport, which creates 10 per cent of greenhouse gases or industry and agriculture, which create 14 per cent each. Air travel is totally dwarfed by the two main causes of carbon pollution — electricity generation, which accounts for 24 per cent, and deforestation at 18 per cent. Half of this deforestation — accounting for 9 per cent of global climate change — is due to the annual destruction of rainforests in only two countries, Brazil and Indonesia. Thus, if Indonesia and Brazil could be persuaded to stop their environmental vandalism for one year, the consequent preservation of rainforests would be sufficient to neutralise the climate impact of all the aircraft in the world until 2050. The same would be true if just one third of fossil-fuel electricity were replaced by renewables or nuclear power.

That British Airways and other airlines have failed to convey these elementary facts to the British public — and indeed done nothing to counter the belief that air travel is among the main causes of global warming — is a testament to something that passengers have long known: airlines are among the worst-managed companies in the world.

Now consider technology. Aircraft may be a relatively minor source of greenhouse gases, but their emissions are much more difficult and expensive to eliminate than those of other industries. While there are plenty of methods of generating electricity without any carbon or powering cars with much lower emissions, there is currently no alternative to kerosene as an aircraft fuel, and none is in sight on the technological horizon. This means that, to the limited extent that aircraft do contribute to global warming, their effect can only be mitigated by ensuring that planes are fully loaded, and by creating mechanisms to offset the emissions produced by flying with carbon reductions from power generation or land use, where such savings are much easier and cheaper to achieve.

So to economics. To make aircraft fly as efficiently as possible, governments should replace the present, irrational passenger levies with fuel taxes or, better still, a system of carbon trading that would force airlines to buy emission rights from other sectors, such as nuclear power or forestry, which can easily and cheaply eliminate carbon on the ground. The purpose of such levies should not be to discourage travel, but to increase incentives for emission-reducing activities, whether nuclear generation in Britain or rainforest preservation in Brazil.

This leads us finally to politics. China and Brazil will only develop their economies in a globally responsible way if they are offered technologies and incentives that allow them to approach Western levels of comfort and mobility with lower emissions. This is not just a pipe dream. Rainforests could be defended with quite modest subsidies and necessary technologies for nuclear and solar power and low-emission vehicles already exist, but they will be commercialised only if carbon emissions become very expensive, while non-polluting energy is subsidised in the early years.

This is where increased air travel could play a constructive role. Carbon trading by airlines could channel large sums of money into low-emission energy. The more people fly, the more profitable low-emission technologies would become.

To judge by their obsession with air travel, however, many so-called greens are really only puritan ideologues who care more about curbing what they see as selfish capitalist lifestyles than they do about controlling climate change. But sincere environmentalists who genuinely want to reduce emissions should stop trying to induce guilt and exhorting politicians to set an example by changing their lifestyles. Instead, they should campaign for economic arrangements that would make it financially attractive for Western businesses and governments in developing countries to eliminate carbon.

They should remember what is perhaps the most important insight in political philosophy, as expressed by Adam Smith: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” Economic self-interest offers the only solution to global warming. Everything else is hot air.