‘Fight or Flight’? Aviation and the Battle Against Climate Change

by Peter McManners, Ian Sinclair

Activists in the fight against climate change should mobilise around a key demand: tax aviation fuel

First published: 06 September, 2012 | Category: Activism, Environment, Politics

Peter McManners is a Visiting Fellow at Henley Business School and the author of Adapt and Thrive: The sustainable revolution (Susta Press, 2008) and Green Outcomes in the Real World: Global forces, local circumstances, and sustainable solutions (Gower 2010). He spoke to Ian Sinclair about his new book Fly and be Damned: What now for aviation and climate change? (Zed books, 2012). 


In your book you compare flying today to smoking because 'we now know it is damaging to our long-term health but we persist.' You continue: 'The denial by a smoker that health problems may affect them is a personal choice. Denial that aviation is bad for the ecosystem is a deeply disturbing abjuration of responsibility.' How, and to what extent, is aviation damaging to the long-term health of the planet?

Global warming and climate change are now well established facts. You would have to be living on another planet not to have been exposed to the debate about the science of climate change. We cannot live on another planet. We have one planet, it’s our only home and if we trash it we will have to live with the consequences. 

It is obvious that we have to kick the fossil-fuel habit but people still look for reasons to avoid taking the necessary action. In aviation, the argument is that flying is special and can sit outside plans to reduce emissions. At 2-3% of global emissions, it is argued by those in the industry that aviation accounts for only a small proportion of the problem and thus that efforts should be targeted elsewhere. This argument is winning: there are currently no plans to control emissions from aviation, except for disingenuous targets from within the aviation industry for a massive shift to biofuel whilst gross emissions double or treble by 2030. We are allowing emissions from aviation to expand on a steep upward trajectory at the exact same time that there is wide agreement that climate change is real and could be serious. We know that the climate has 'tipping points' beyond which the climate could run away to a different equilibrium. Scientists cannot pinpoint precisely where these tipping points lie, but finding them through the grand experiment we are running at the moment is crass stupidity; it will then be too late to stop the runaway climate change that would follow. 

There are a number of reasons why it is important to push back against aviation's argument for exemption. First, emissions are at high altitude causing damage to the upper atmosphere that scientists cannot yet fully quantify. Second, building planes is not like making cars: aviation works to very long time horizons. A new plane can remain in the active fleet for 30 years. Taking into account the time required for radical new designs to move from the drawing board to production, decisions taken today have ramifications for the shape of the industry in 2050. Third, failure to act is symptomatic of a general failure to act over climate change as people take a selfish attitude to defend what they have. Changes to aviation would have little effect on the people at the bottom; they would affect the rich countries and the rich people within poor countries. Aviation can become the rallying point to demonstrate that the world is serious about tackling climate change and accept the lifestyle changes required to make real inroads into solving the problem. 

How did we end up here? What national and international treaties have framed the growth in aviation?

We have ended up in this position through adherence to a treaty that is now 68 years old. In 1944, before the Second World War ended, the United States invited delegations to Chicago to agree a new convention on civil aviation. The pre-work to set up the convention and begin drafting its provisions started in 1943; invitations were sent out in September 1944 for a convention in October. The Convention on International Civil Aviation was signed in early December the same year. This is the sort of rapid action that can be taken in a crisis situation. If climate change were seen as a crisis presenting a real and present danger to the future of world society, we could convene a new convention within a similar timescale. 

The United States used its position of strength in 1944 when other countries were weak, particular those in Europe still in the midst of war, to put its stamp on aviation which endures to today. The treaty was appropriate for its time, when aviation was in its infancy and climate change was not on the agenda. The Chicago Convention was intended to encourage growth in aviation and use aviation policy as one component of cementing the peace. Not surprisingly, the convention is now out-of-date, but the terms of the convention ensure that it is impossible to make changes without US support. Written into the treaty is a slow and cumbersome process for introducing changes which means that over the years, while there has been a slow evolution of minor clarifications and adjustments, the core of the convention has held firm. 

The key problem, in the context of reforming aviation for the 21st century, is that the Convention prevents countries from levying taxes on aviation fuel for international flights. Numerous bilateral agreements reached over the years reinforce this principle, that aviation fuel is tax-free. This is an assumption that is not questioned. Each decision over aircraft design, launching a new airline or opening a new route is worked out on the assumption that fuel is tax-free. This has distorted the industry and, on a project-by-project basis, taken it into a cul-de-sac in which low-carbon solutions are not commercially viable. It is similar to the near death of the U.S. car industry, where opposing fuel taxes meant that the United States was left behind in fuel-efficient car design. But with aviation, a truly international industry, the whole sector is locked into the past. 

The United States remains in control of international aviation governance, and has retained its deep antipathy to taxes and therefore its resistance to revising the Chicago Convention. There is little sign of the U.S. changing its position. More likely it will need a cohort of countries, not including the United States, to do the early running and make the case for action on the world stage. Europe has made a start by bringing aviation inside the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS) but the storm of protest from the United States and China over this small change discouraged European politicians from going further at this stage. 

You argue low-cost airlines like Ryanair and easyJet 'have transformed aviation'. How?

Low-cost airlines, such as Southwest airlines in the US, have changed the commercial parameters of the industry, drawing in new passengers and making flying cheaper than ground transportation. But the model relies on cheap fuel and weak government legislation. In Europe, when a city enters the Ryanair network it draws in new tourists, boosting the local economy. Ryanair understands this, and so negotiates very hard before opening a new route or deciding to retain an existing one. The airline requires a runway and a terminal building, which might be little more than space in a cargo building. It also expects to pay very little for the use of these facilities. The pressure for the best deal goes farther; Ryanair often seeks, or is offered, ‘marketing support’ from the local area to bring in paying tourists. It is doing nothing illegal, running a successful business within the letter of the rules. 

Creating capacity that stimulates demand, particularly in the creative and hard-nosed manner of Ryanair, is good business for the airline but creating demand also creates environmental stress. Sustainable policy would start with seeking to control demand through reducing the need to fly. Generating demand to fill capacity is the complete reverse of sustainable policy for aviation. 

Low-cost airlines have been used in business schools for three decades across America and Europe as a textbook example of good business practice. Herb Kelleher of Southwest, Michael O’Leary of Ryanair and Stelios Haji-Ioannou of easyJet are presented as role models for budding entrepreneurs, but these business leaders come from a generation brought up with ideas that will soon be outdated. Business schools are very slow to deliver teaching that is appropriate to the environmental challenges of the twenty-first century. In time the champions of low-cost aviation will be seen as dinosaurs from the old order ignoring environmental consequences to maximise commercial gain. 

In the book’s preface you argue a revolution is needed in aviation to make it environmentally sustainable going forward. What short and long-term policies do you propose to achieve this goal?

I introduced the idea of the Sustainable Revolution my book Adapt and Thrive because I realised that there are no single-issue sustainable solutions. Everything connects and everything must change. You need to change everything or we will change nothing. The changes in aviation will be a revolution because every aspect of the industry is connected. The engineers can build significantly lower emissions air vehicles but will have to alter airports to handle them. Passenger expectations will change to accept that flying fast costs more, while cheaper flying will take longer, in a new breed of spacious but relatively slow air vehicles. Air freight parameters will change so that shipping vegetables between continents by air will no longer be a viable business. 

The policy to achieve this transformation is simple: significant taxation of aviation fuel. This would change the commercial parameters. The short-term challenge is to change, or replace, the Chicago agreement to allow the taxation of aviation fuel. Once this change is bedded in, a ratchet would need to be agreed to push the tax higher over an agreed time-frame. Everyone planning the future of aviation, from governments dealing with transport policy to airlines making fleet purchase decisions, will then have a firm basis to work with and the clear objective of a sustainable low-carbon future for aviation. 

What political, economic and social interests will have to be challenged and defeated to achieve the 'Sustainable Revolution' you describe?

Across the policy debate, the biggest blockage is blinkered adherence to market fundamentalism. In truth, the market does not always know best. In aviation the debate is highly polarised between a relatively small number of environmentalists opposing the expansion of aviation and a broad lobby of government, industry and a general public that likes to fly cheaply. The political argument has to be won that climate change is a crisis that needs action. In the years ahead, meetings will continue to discuss the growing danger of climate change and why so little has been achieved but eventually there will be yet another summit of world leaders which begins with the pledge that something must be done. This is when world leaders will pick on the obvious and easy target of aviation and agree to tax aviation fuel. No government will take unilateral action, because it would be an economic own-goal, but under the cover of collective responsibility they can act. 

The political battle will not be easy but countries wanting to be on the right side of history should declare now their support for taxing aviation fuel and give their own industry a head-start in thinking through the implications. In my communications with officials supporting the British government my argument is accepted, but it is still thought to require too much political capital to fight for change on the international stage. When it looks possible that international agreement could be reached, the political judgement will shift to wanting to be on the winning side. I find this situation deeply frustrating when good policy has to wait. The other reasons politicians dither is because of worries of an electoral backlash. Not many people realise that the airlines pay no tax on the fuel they burn and even fewer people have the chance to share my vision that sustainable aviation will be different but better. When the circumstances coincide, with people demanding action over climate change and starting to appreciate how aviation can be better, politicians will have to sit up and take action. I hope my book can play a small part in influencing people’s attitudes and encouraging people to support change.

Grassroots campaign groups such as Plane Stupid and HACAN are conspicuous by their absence in your book. What role do you think they have had and should play in making flying sustainable in the future?

I believe that campaign groups such as Plane Stupid have an important role in getting the issues noticed and exposing uncomfortable truths. The problem seems to be that people in positions of power and influence are not listening. There seems to be an ‘off’ switch within the establishment that decides that radical campaign groups are noise to be shut out. I wanted to write a book that exposes the situation, shows how it could be better, and explains what’s to be done with logic that Plane Stupid already understands, but in the language that a Prime Minister could read without throwing a fit. It is hard to pitch it right so that it hits the mark without tripping the establishment ‘off’ switch. Having laid out a clear logical argument, I still have to face conversations based on some curious and often spurious grounds from those who defend the status quo. I have a much closer affinity now with the frustration shown by these groups. 

My approach is not to attack flying but to explain how it could be better and to argue for change of policy to launch aviation into the 21st century. I believe we need a united front around the single issue of exposing the hypocrisy of tax-free aviation fuel and seeking agreement to tax aviation fuel. If all shades of opinion and both ends of the political spectrum could come together around a single rallying call for action, then the message becomes too big for the politicians to ignore and they will have to do our bidding.

Ian Sinclair is a freelance writer based in London, UK. He can be found on twitter and email.

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