November 2, 2007 (The Australian) – “THERE’S a worrying complacency about environmental issues in the aviation industry in Australia,” says Captain John Siebert, chairman of the aviation umbrella organisation, the Australian Aviation Council (AUSAC).
“Because aviation emissions are a relatively small part of the global problem, many parts of the industry believe that they can dismiss the issue as just another green fad. But this is already becoming a significant problem from private flyers to regional airlines, to the majors.”
Aviation is essentially a privately run activity, so it is easy for politicians to dump the blame on to non-government organisations and then stand back.
Imposing restrictions and even taxing the industry become attractive populist policies – no matter how irresponsible they are. The major airlines flew into the centre of this storm some time ago and are taking steps to respond seriously to what they recognise as a vital long-term problem.
Late last year, the British Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, followed by the publication’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change early this year, quickly made aviation and the environment a single theme in Europe.
The airline industry came in for heavy treatment. Individually, and through the industry body IATA, the International Air Transport Association, co-ordinated responses are now being developed.
But addressing these new forces requires first an understanding of the fundamental issues – and then co-ordinated action, in order to head off irrational and politically opportunistic government action. And these are “issues sans frontieres”.
Rules imposed by the European Union will directly affect airlines in this part of the world, because they fly into European airspace (and must pay emissions charges); also because the EU sets trends that other governments watch. So it is not just the large airlines that will be affected from afar.
Today, according to the European Commission’s Directorate General for the Environment, aviation accounts for 3 per cent of total EU greenhouse gas emission. On a worldwide scale, the proportionate impact is smaller than Europe’s, accounting for about 1-2 per cent of the total.
In Australia, it is up to 2 per cent. But, despite its small overall contribution, European aviation is very much part of a worldwide industry and, as its share of total emissions is increasing rapidly, it will set benchmarks that influence the rest of the world.
The global UN aviation body, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), is taking leadership of the government role, but any government remains free to develop its own principles – or not.
The environmental implications of commercial aircraft operations have been seriously studied by the aviation industry and by governmental aviation authorities for well over a decade.
As a result, understanding of the dimensions of the various impacts – which extend well beyond carbon emissions – is well progressed but still far from complete or uncontroversial.
And much work has already been undertaken, especially by airframe and engine manufacturers – for example, looking for biofuel alternatives. This has occurred not just as part of any climate change debate, but as a matter of necessity. Clearly, there are conspicuous emissions – and they have an impact. More importantly, the industry is expanding rapidly, so the proportion of emissions generated by the aviation industry is projected to increase, as other sectors cut back.
Over the past two decades, aviation greenhouse gas emissions in Europe doubled, as air travel became increasingly inexpensive, pushed by liberalisation and the growth of LCCs through Europe.
So it was obvious that something had to be done. Also, as a parallel theme, oil prices have escalated over the past five years, to levels that threaten to make the airline industry financially unsustainable.
Only strong economic conditions and the airlines’ ability to impose compensatory “fuel surcharges” have allowed the expansion to continue. But even so, most planners had already recognised that new fuel sources had to be found; sooner or later, oil products will be either too expensive or insufficient to meet needs, or both.
All these problems permeate the aviation sector from top to bottom. Already, for example, governments are beginning to impose environmental taxes on larger cars (regardless of how much they are used).
Private aircraft and the general aviation sector as a whole are all easy targets for this form of blunt-edged taxation – in the absence of rational measures to reduce per capita greenhouse emissions.
The regional airline industry too will, in the absence of industry co-ordinated positions, be swept up in the broader scramble for solutions.
And that’s why AUSAC is looking to develop a broad-based industry position – and quickly. “Timing is vital,” Captain Siebert says. “We need to get all players aligned and fully committed to realistic and effective emission-reduction measures.
“That means working with governments at all levels to make sure there is a general buy-in on all sides.”
The often knee-jerk government response is to tax, and this is often popular with some sections of the green movement. But if serious long-term steps are to be taken to reduce the negative impact of flying, while still supporting its massive economic and social benefits, the response has to be more intelligent and, ideally, consensual.
The world’s airlines are already responding by joint action at both practical and political levels. But these are issues that are already recognised as going far beyond the major airline industry. And even if the existing levels of emission, from regional airlines, from private flyers and others are relatively minor, the aviation industry makes a great target for opportunist politicians.
At that stage, reason goes out of the window.
“That’s why there is such urgency for every sector of the aviation industry – and government – to understand the issue and be prepared to act coherently,” Captain Siebert says.
AUSAC will hold a seminar in Sydney on November 26-27 to seek to frame a whole-of-industry response to climate change. For further information, see http://www.greenskies.com.au.
Peter Harbison is chairman of the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation and an AUSAC board member.