Bill Totten's Weblog

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Air traffic out of control

by George Monbiot

The Guardian, Comment is Free (May 09 2007)

The governments of the rich world are committed to two contradictory policies. One is to cut the emissions of greenhouse gases. The other is to increase the number of flights. The success of the first policy has been limited. The success of the second has been spectacular.

New figures {1} from the aviation company OAG suggest {2} that the number of scheduled flights has risen by five per cent worldwide between May 2006 and May 2007. Bookings for this month are higher than they have ever been, and the peak holiday season has not yet begun. Nor has the new Open Skies agreement on transatlantic flights (which was negotiated and reported without reference to its impact on greenhouse gas emissions) yet come into effect. It is likely greatly to increase the volume of traffic.

The broken-down figures are interesting, and unexpected. The number of tickets sold in North America has risen relatively slowly - by three percent. In Europe it has increased by eight per cent. The biggest expansion of all is in the number of flights between western Europe and Africa. They have increased by 360,000 seats, or thirteen per cent. I wonder to what extent this reflects the boom in holiday homes in South Africa, which has been promoted by interests as diverse as the Daily Mail and the Co-operative Bank. The growth in second homes abroad is, in terms of climate change, one of the most damaging of all developments, as the new owners are committed to taking several flights a year. If your holiday home is in South Africa, your carbon emissions will be astronomical.

It is as if we inhabit two parallel worlds. In one - the world of the travel supplements, the Open Skies agreement, the British government's "master plans" for the expansion of our airports - we expect to travel ever further and more frequently, enjoying stag nights in Prague, wine tasting trips in Australia and shopping weekends in New York. In the other world we wring our hands and lament the imminent death of the biosphere.

At what point do these worlds collide? At what point do governments acknowledge that both objectives cannot be sustained? At what point do "ethical" travel companies like Lonely Planet {3} and {4} acknowledge that they are doing more harm than good, and shut up shop? At what point does the Guardian stop producing reader offers {5} of holidays in Alaska, Costa Rica and Papua New Guinea? Is everyone doomed to wait for everyone else to take action?

The only measure {6} which could lead to a sustained reduction in flights is a reduction in the capacity of airports. Just as traffic expands to fill the available road space, the number of flights expands to fill the available landing slots. If airports keep expanding, no amount of hand-wringing or taxation or carbon labelling will reduce the number of flights. When will the government announce that the airport expansion programme is to stop and then go into reverse?

This is the question with which we must now plague our MPs. If the growth we have seen this year is to continue - and there are grounds for believing that it could increase - aviation will become the primary cause of greenhouse gas emissions. The government hides behind the convention, under the Kyoto protocol {7}, that emissions from international flights don't count towards a nation's carbon inventory, as if this means that, being unrecorded, they cease to exist. Otherwise it has run out of arguments. It doesn't need any. As long as we continue to live in two worlds, it can continue to sustain two policies.


{1} "Aviation Growth Hits All-Time High - World's airlines offer 114,000 more flights and 17.7 million more seats year over year"

{2} "Flights soar to record number worldwide"




{6} "On the flight path to global meltdown", Guardian (September 21 2006),,1877388,00.html


Bill Totten


  • Very interesting position. How will ICAO and other organization play into these stats. Newer generation Boeing 777, and 787 are lighter faster and more efficient jets. Any word on new stage jet requirements for trans Pacific, Atlantic or over the Pole flights?

    By Blogger Akfotoman, at 5:42 AM, May 25, 2007  

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