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The future of air travel

Getting to decarbonisation

By Prospect Team  

The UK government has committed itself to cutting Britain’s greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050. It’s an eye-catching ambition, but is it realistic? Do the government’s plans go too far, or not far enough? And what would be the consequences of meeting such a target?

To discuss these issues, Prospect brought together two experts from different fields—Professor Joseph Alcamo, Director of the Sussex Sustainability Research Programme at the University of Sussex, and Matt Gorman, the Sustainability and Environment Director at Heathrow, sponsors of the event.

“The science is clear: that we need to get to net zero to avoid the worst effects of climate change,” said Matt Gorman. “That’s true for every industrial sector.”

“The acceleration of the debate in recent years has been quite marked,” he said. “We’ve seen updated science from the IPCC and alongside, you’ve seen a significant mobilisation of particularly young people.”

“Aviation is classified as one of the ‘harder to abate’ sectors,” he noted, “along with things like steel and cement where there are technological alternatives, but they might take time.”

“We are optimistic about what we can achieve in our sector and how some of our licence to grow may end up funding those clean innovations and carbon capture technologies.” Other innovations that the aviation sector might deploy include a greater use of sustainable fuels and also hybrid and electric aircraft motors, which could become commercially viable within a decade.

“This demonstrates a point of view that we are going to have to get away from,” said Joseph Alcamo in response. “That somehow we can maintain everything we have and keep doing things the way we are doing them.”

“Technology has certain limits,” he said, “and when we talk about ‘net zero’, we are not talking about end-of-pipe corrective measures. We are talking about transformation.”

“Transport now accounts for about a third of the UK’s emissions,” he noted. “I don’t think we can maintain getting around the way we are now getting around.”

“In cities we are going to have to leave our cars behind,” he said. The changes to the way that people behave and travel will in part be a function of urban planning. So for example if businesses are located near residential areas, workers will need to travel less. This is the sort of simple adjustment that will have to come about.

“As far as long distance goes, we may be able to maintain or slow down the increase in aviation emissions,” said Joseph Alcamo. “In the end I am very skeptical we can maintain the number of passengers using air transport for regions like Europe. I see no reason why we should not be planning for an air-travel-free Europe.”

“If we are serious,” he said, “we have to talk about air travel-free zones.”

Offsetting is worth examining, he continued. Heathrow is using this approach, by the restoration of peat land. Peat land absorbs carbon from the atmosphere, but if the land degrades, that carbon can be released. Restoring peat land can help to offset the emissions generated by air travel. “That’s great,” said Joseph Alcamo, “but offsetting is going to have its limits.”

If people were to change their travel habits, and if Europe were to become a zero air travel zone, this would require a significant cultural shift. People would have to change their attitude towards their own lifestyles, working practices and accept limits on their ability to move across the globe.

“My starting point is that air travel is fundamentally a force for good,” said Matt Gorman. Not only is Heathrow a huge hub for travellers he said, it is also Britain’s largest port for non-EU exports. That makes air travel of crucial significance as Britain prepares for Brexit. It also has a significant social and cultural importance.

“People do need to pay the environmental cost, and they already do that in the UK through air passenger duty.” He was unconvinced by the benefits of the proposed frequent flier tax, commenting that “it doesn’t tackle carbon directly and we’ve always been in favour or pricing carbon directly.” That approach, it is hoped, will drive innovation, as airlines seek new ways to lower their carbon bills.

“Personally I’d struggle in a world where we said the enemy is flying, rather than the enemy is carbon,” said Matt Gorman. “Carbon is the enemy—and we’ve got to get it out of the economy.”

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