Air Travel & (or vs.) the Environment

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 11/24/2007 03:52:00 PM
Here are two recent features on the supposed tradeoff between air travel and the environment. Is traveling by air an especially damaging activity environmentally? The answer to that question will in great part help determine the outcome to an EU proposal to cap air travel carbon emissions and the fate of a much-needed third runway at London Heathrow, Europe's largest airport. Let us begin with the EU draft proposal which has just been approved in the European Parliament. It's interesting in that if it passes, countries outside the EU may have to follow suit in the same way that California often set the standard for auto emissions for the rest of the US. Remember, aircraft emissions were not included in the Kyoto protocol:
One of the boldest attempts by the European Union to impose its climate policy on other parts of the world received a boost Tuesday when legislators voted to strengthen a plan to cap carbon emissions from aircraft flying to and from Europe.

The proposal mirrors an existing carbon credit trading system that the EU uses to combat global warming and meet its emissions targets under the Kyoto Protocol. Under the current system - which exempted airlines - governments set carbon dioxide limits for producers of power, cement, fuels, pulp and paper. Companies must then purchase credits if they exceed those targets.

The new measures, approved by the European Parliament, drew immediate criticism from the U.S. government and from the airline industry. They argued that the rules broke with international aviation practices, would cost companies billions of dollars and could lead to sharp increases in airline ticket prices.

"Any sort of emissions trading system should be done on the basis of mutual agreement between governments," said Carl Burleson, the director of the office of environment and energy at the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. "If one government wants to include another airline in their system, then it should come and talk to that government."

Burleson said the EU measures remained proposals, and so it was premature for him to comment on whether the United States would bring a case against Europe for unfair trade practices at the World Trade Organization [!]...

But members of the European Parliament said that including airlines in Europe's emissions trading system would set an important precedent and could be emulated by other countries.

"We want a worldwide system as soon as possible," said Peter Liese, a German member who helped to guide the legislation through the assembly, which met in Strasbourg. "There must be an end to the status quo that nothing is done in the aviation sector, which has predominated for many years now." Liese added that two-thirds of all aircraft emissions are from intercontinental flights.

Under the draft approved Tuesday, all flights arriving or departing from Europe would be included under the European system from 2011, rather than from 2012 - the date originally proposed by EU officials.

Airlines would be allocated some permits for their emissions but would have to buy more than originally planned in an auction. In addition, airlines would have to buy more than other regulated industries to compensate for the more severe kinds of damage aircraft are believed to be causing while emitting greenhouse gases at high altitudes.

The vote was a blow to the airline industry, which has been lobbying against the legislation and which branded the move by Europe as an ineffective regional attempt to tackle a problem that requires a global solution.

"Even if Europe shut aircraft emissions down to zero but didn't bring the rest of the world with them, it would have minimal impact on the environment," said Anthony Concil, a spokesman for the International Air Transport Association. "We fear that legislators have succumbed to winning political favors with a local audience, but that is short sighted as it could result in diplomatic and trade wars."

Liese said the EU officials had "very good legal arguments" for their plan. He said the Parliament approved amendments making it possible to modify the legislation in the future so that it could be made compatible with other countries, like the United States, if they came up with a comparable plan to tackle emissions from aviation.

The legislation represents another looming cost to the industry and to passengers, who would pay more for tickets at a time when airlines already are raising ticket prices to offset the rising costs from the spike in the price of a barrel of oil, which has been hovering at levels approaching $100...

Taneli Hassinen, a spokesman for Finnair, said that his airline had calculated this year that the EU system would cost the airline €50 million each year. With the amendments made Tuesday, he said that figure would be higher still.

Passengers would face more expensive ticket prices as airlines passed through the costs, and he warned that European airlines would be at a disadvantage to overseas competitors that operate fewer European routes.

"For European carriers the worry is that this emissions system will probably have a certain impact on competition if the other guys - American, Asian, and African carriers - are not participating," said Hassinen.

The legislation still must be approved by Parliament in a further reading and by individual EU governments before it can become law.

Yet it was already being criticized by some environmentalists as insufficient to tackle the contribution that aviation makes to climate change. "The legislation is inadequate and threatens EU targets for cutting emissions," said Richard Dyer, an aviation campaigner with Friends of the Earth.

EU governments agreed this spring to cut greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 30 percent by 2020. But Dyer said that the aviation industry was growing so rapidly that if it was left unchecked while other industries make cuts, it could become the industry responsible for the majority of emissions in Europe before 2050.

Dyer was particularly disappointed that under the EU proposal, jets weighing less than 20,000 kilograms, or 44,000 pounds, would be exempted from the system. That category includes many business jets: "We don't think it sets a very good example to exclude a very rapidly growing sector that ferries high earners around the world," he said.

But Liese said legislators had struck a blow against special exemptions by including diplomatic and other government flights in the system. "Governments have to set an example and should not have privileges," he said.

Burleson of the FAA said that the experience in recent years in the United States showed that airlines could reduce emissions without the legislative approach taken by Europe. U.S. airlines, Burleson said, were carrying more passengers and more freight than they were just seven years ago, and he said the industry still had been able to cut CO2 emissions by several million tons a year because of more efficient aircraft and other reasons, including improvements to air traffic management.

Environmental campaigners say that even if fuel efficiency is increasing - leading to a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions on each flight - the number of flights still is growing faster rate than fuel efficiency is improving.

Meanwhile, the story on a third runway Heathrow facing the ire of environmental activists is a recurring one (see an earlier post on the Battle of Heathrow). The Beeb offers a comprehensive take on the matter, with an illuminating angle on the massive air traffic the airport must currently handle day in and day out:

Heathrow is bursting at the seams. Its two runways are now used by an astonishing 80 planes an hour. The pressure means half of all arriving aircraft have to circle in holding patterns until there's space to land. Even when you're on the ground there can be a complicated and congested taxi to a gate. And that is on a good day. The airport's rivals in Europe handle fewer passengers, yet Frankfurt has three runways, Paris Charles de Gaulle has four and Schipol in Amsterdam, five. So the pressure from the aviation industry for the massive expansion of Heathrow is intense.

The third runway, two kilometres long, would be built to the north of the airport and would largely be used by smaller aircraft bound for domestic and European flights. This would allow the airport to increase passenger numbers from 67m to 128m, helped also by the opening of Terminal Five next year. The airlines, businesses and trade unions all say expansion is vital to support the economies of London and Britain as a whole.

Yet expanding Heathrow, a stated government aim, is also the biggest challenge facing its aviation policy.

First of all, there is the impact on the environment. The main issue for ministers is not the wider one of the effect of air travel on global warming. Instead, the government has to ensure the bigger Heathrow doesn't make the air quality in the local area worse. The main pollutants are Nitrogen Oxide, and PM10 particles which can cause lung problems. But much of the smog is not produced by the airport, it comes from the surrounding road traffic. The government's consultation document claims the airport can increase by around 220,000 flights a year, but the air will get cleaner. After three years of investigations, civil servants conclude that better engines, both on aircraft and in cars passing the airport, will make the difference, with no further changes.

Then there's the noise of departing and arriving aircraft. This is measured using what's known as a noise contour - the boundary around the airport within which the sound levels, measured as an average over time, are said to be an annoyance. The idea is that it shouldn't get any bigger, and that is what the government is promising, even with the third runway. But opponents of expansion say the noise is already building up to the point where the boundary will start expanding, and the idea that an extra 240,000 flights might land and take off each year without a major increase in noise isn't believable. Yet aircraft have got considerably quieter due to improvements in engine technology. Even Airbus's enormous A380, with its four engines creates less of a stir than the scream of an aging Tristar. The question is, have aircraft got quiet enough to allow more of them to fly?

Regardless of whether Runway Three is built, the government does have a plan B. It wants to remove some of the operational restrictions on how Heathrow uses its two runways. The Runway Alternation rule means planes take off from one runway and land in the same direction on the other. This spares local residents at each end of the runways half a day's disruption from noise. The airport also sticks to the Cranford Agreement, which dates back to 1952, stating that wherever possible, and wind permitting, planes won't take off over this village, one of the airport's nearest neighbours.

Scrapping these agreements would allow more flexibility, and, the government says, increase capacity by 15%, with no major investment needed. But it would also infuriate local people and they, along with seasoned environmental campaigners, are threatening a long and bitter battle against expansion.

Regardless of the effect on the local environment, many opponents will fight the proposals because of their concerns about climate change. After all, the government is promising to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 60% before 2050. The government's response is two-fold. Ministers believe better aircraft technology will push down emissions, but they also believe aviation should be allowed to produce more, as long as other areas of Europe's economy produce less. The plan is to sell permits to emit carbon, some of which airlines will have to buy on an emissions trading market from industries that are getting cleaner.

Green activists say this is environmental hypocrisy, and won't work. The government and the industry say it has got to work, if Britain's aviation industry is to remain competitive in the wider world.