Airline industry’s sky-high emissions crash climate targets

All the clever plans the aviation industry is developing to reduce emissions have one thing in common: the one sure-fire way to truly reduce emissions, ie. by flying less, is absolutely off the table. Just like in so many other heavily polluting (and highly subsidised) sectors, the only game in town is endless growth, garnished with some ‘green’ tweaks around the edges, as I discussed in the Irish Examiner.

AS MORE AND more countries come to terms with the climate emergency, including the oversized role played by the aviation industry, a range of measures aimed at clipping the sector’s wings are now being considered.

In May, France introduced a limited ban on short-haul aviation. This is a heavily watered down version of the original French proposal, which would have essentially outlawed internal aviation across one of Europe’s largest countries.

However, intense industry lobbying has turned it into a largely symbolic measure. Despite its deficiencies, it does flag the direction of future transport policy and sends a clear signal to those considering longer term trends: in simple terms, we need to fly less, much less.

One person who clearly hasn’t got the memo is Kenny Jacobs, new chief executive of DAA, the airport management group that claims to be “delivering excellence in a sustainable future.”

It’s unclear how exactly Jacobs squares this ‘sustainable future’ with his interview in this newspaper earlier this week in which he spoke of the 
possible reinstatement of the Cork-Dublin air route.
 This was scrapped in 2011 with the completion of the M8 motorway linking Ireland’s two major cities.

Industry spokespeople have long defended the expansion of aviation in Ireland as being inevitable given our location as an island on the edge of Europe. Even this shaky argument can hardly be deployed to defend not just maintaining but actually expanding internal air routes, where ample road and rail alternatives already exist.

In response to moves elsewhere in Europe to curtail flying, Jacobs retorted: “You cannot get a train from Cork to the south of France”. You can of course get a ferry from Cork to France, or indeed from Rosslare to northern Spain.

From a climate point of view, the difference is enormous. A typical foot passenger on a ferry accounts for around 19 grams per kilometre. If you instead fly, it varies from 156-244 grams per kilometre, or between eight to 13 times more emissions.

One of the unexpected dividends of Brexit has been a resurgence in ferry links direct from Ireland to Europe. At the moment, many of these, such as Cork to Zeebrugge in Belgium and Waterford Port to Rotterdam, are for cargo only, but as public awareness of the massive negative impacts of aviation grows, then demand for climate-friendly travel options is likely to expand in the coming years.

It’s ironic that rather than penalising our most polluting sectors, the Irish State instead lavishes them with massive subsidies. In 2020, the cost paid by motorists per tonne of carbon dioxide (CO2) from petrol burning was more than €260, with road diesel costing just under €200. The equivalent levy per tonne of CO2 from jet kerosene was: zero.

Jet kerosene for commercial aviation is exempt from both excise and carbon taxes. In 2019, the State lost around €634m in revenues foregone on aviation fuel. These lavish subsidies are separate from the money the Irish State pours into supporting aviation, which included €36m in regional airport funding in Budget 2023.

A further fillip to regional airports is the availability of public service obligation (PSO) funding for certain routes. The Kerry-Dublin air route had been supported by PSO funds but when Ryanair won the route in 2021, they did so without such support. However, earlier this year Kerry Airport warned that the route might once again need taxpayers’ direct support should Ryanair pull out.

In the second quarter of last year, there were over 87,000 passengers on the Kerry-Dublin route. At least some of these routes directly compete with the vastly more sustainable options of taking the train or bus, or even driving. And Kerry airport is the third busiest destination for that most intensely polluting form of aviation – private jets.

Looking at a map of Ireland, the seaboard is dotted with airports offering international connectivity, from Cork and Kerry to Shannon, Knock and Donegal. And of course, Dublin.

In the throes of a worsening climate emergency, can we really justify the maintenance of six airports? Kerry airport is close to Shannon, while Donegal airport is barely 100km from Derry airport.

While flying is a fantastic resource, bear in mind that more than 80% of the world’s population will never set foot on an aircraft, so those of us who enjoy the privilege of flying are among the fortunate few. You can of course have too much of a good thing. Last year, there were over 28m passenger movements through Dublin airport alone – for a country with a population of 5m.

Despite industry hype about efficiency, ‘sustainable’ fuels etc, in simple terms, if global aviation were a country, it would be in the world’s top 10 carbon polluters. On tackling climate change, sometimes, to do more actually means doing less. And this is certainly the case with aviation.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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