The sky’s no limit

The aviation industry is responsible for a large proportion of carbon emissions. But although that means we should be flying less, it doesn’t necessarily mean the end of our beloved holidays

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It is just another day at Manchester Airport. Departure boards announce planes taking off every few minutes. Tens of thousands of people are heading to destinations across the world. In just under an hour and a half, they could be in Amsterdam. Another hour could see them in Barcelona, or just over four hours could take them to Gran Canaria. And they could go further still – the sky is no longer any limit.

This is the reality of travel today and the face of the modern holiday. In 2018 over 28 million passengers swept through Manchester Airport, making it the third busiest airport in the UK.

“We’re not saying people shouldn’t be flying at all but equally we have to fly less, not more.”

Aviation has been a colossal success story in many ways. According to government figures, it contributes £22 billion to the economy each year and supports half a million jobs. And it facilitates those all-important holidays, seamlessly connecting us to over 370 direct destinations in more than 100 countries. It sounds great. Yet, we all know there is an elephant in the room.

Aircraft using UK airports release millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere each year, accounting for around 7.5 per cent of total UK emissions. That might not sound a high proportion, but the emissions are mostly at high altitude where they wreak the most havoc with the planet’s climate. And aviation is amongst the fastest growing sources of emissions in the UK. Between 1990-2016 emissions more than doubled while in other sectors they fell.

At a time when the government’s own advisory body, the Committee on Climate Change, says we must reduce carbon emissions overall effectively to zero by 2050 to do our bit to avoid dangerous climate change, could our determination to take off to the sun end up contributing to bringing everyone down?

The situation might well become more challenging still. An analysis by Sky News last October showed that 21 of the country’s biggest airports actually aim to grow passenger numbers further, by
a collective two-thirds over the next 10-20 years. Manchester wants to increase passengers to 50 million by 2030, almost a doubling. There are similar aspirations at Leeds-Bradford, Liverpool John Lennon and Newcastle, while Doncaster-Sheffield Robin Hood wants to increase passengers by almost five times by 2037.

The industry argues this need not lead to a problem. Its advisory body, Sustainable Aviation, says more efficient aircraft and future use of biofuels, for example, will help this to be achieved.

“Modern-day planes are considerably more fuel-efficient than ones that flew 10-20 years ago,” a spokesman at Manchester Airport says. “This means that growth in emissions has significantly slowed in recent times, a trend that will continue in the years ahead. Further innovation will mean forecast increases in passenger volumes from 2020 will be delivered without any further increases
to carbon emissions.”

The Committee on Climate Changes counters that fuel efficiency is growing only slightly each year and at best biofuels are likely to make up a tenth of aircraft fuel by 2050. This would appear to suggest aviation remaining a very significant carbon polluter in 30 years’ time.

Green group Friends of the Earth is worried. Campaigner Jenny Bates says: “Unchecked growth could make the aviation sector the biggest remaining carbon emitter by 2050. That’s more than power or homes, which is outrageous. There is only one answer to this and that is we have to cut emissions and cut flights. We certainly can’t allow any airport to expand.”

Others are even more critical of the aviation industry. Dr Mayer Hillman, senior fellow emeritus at the University of Westminster and a long-time siren call on the dangers of climate change, says: “People talk about sustainable aviation but there’s no such thing unless they’re talking about airships blown along by the wind. We need to stop using fossil fuels completely and we probably needed to do it 30 or 40 years ago. And this talk of biofuels is a big con trick. Our land mass is needed for food production and nature, not to help people fly around.”

People like Hillman insist we are playing with the very liveability of our planet – its ability to continue providing our life-support system. But are critics being too harsh on airports like Manchester, which aim to provide people with what they want and have worked hard to win green accolades?

The Manchester Airport spokesperson says: “We were the first airport in the UK to be certified carbon-neutral for our operations, which has been achieved, for example, by using more efficient technology and buying renewable energy.” A spokesperson at Liverpool John Lennon Airport says: “We will build on the progress already made through saving 22 per cent of our power in the last nine years, bringing a reduction in our carbon emissions from power by 50 per cent. However, we want to go further and in the next few years want to generate up to 25 per cent of our power from onsite renewable sources.”

Meanwhile, Doncaster-Sheffield Robin Hood Airport’s spokesperson explains: “We are fully committed to sustainable growth, actively reducing the airport’s carbon emissions, for example through a new £2 million airfield solar farm to produce a third of our energy needs.”

Manchester Airport plans to grow. “There should be an escalating tax on frequent fliers,” says Friends of the Earth campaigner Jenny Bates
Manchester Airport plans to grow. “There should be an escalating tax on frequent fliers,” says Friends of the Earth campaigner Jenny Bates

Such work is commendable but it affects the day-to-day activities of the airport only. Energy-saving initiatives on the ground do not, and indeed cannot, reduce emissions from aircraft taking off and landing, from passengers travelling to and from the airport largely in cars and from staff commuting. Emissions from these sources dwarf what happens in the airport terminals themselves.

And the emissions of aircraft during flight, in other words after take-off and before landing, are conveniently left out of any airport master plan. These emissions make up the great bulk of aviation’s impact on the environment.

The whole issue of flying and climate change would seem to be subject to fog, smoke screens, more than a few elephants, and ever more figures and counter figures. Take carbon offsetting, for example. The International Civil Aviation Organisation has adopted just such a scheme that will require airlines to buy carbon offsets to compensate for carbon emissions. Similar schemes have been eagerly sold to individual fliers for some time. They sound reassuring on paper.

The principle runs that by planting trees or funding green energy schemes in less developed countries, for example, it cancels out the emissions we might be responsible for here. But environmentalists say this is spurious and the concept of cancelling out a bad by doing a good is flawed. “We have got to cut our emissions full stop,” says Bates. “Of course, increasing tree cover and green energy are important but these things have to happen anyway, in addition to directly cutting existing carbon pollution.”

Someone even once said carbon offsetting amounts to poking your next door neighbour firmly in the eye and then absolving yourself of all blame by making a donation to an eye hospital on the other side of the world.

So, as a nation, as a global community, can we continue flying while we hopefully solve climate change? Perhaps surprisingly, Friends of the Earth says we can, albeit with considerable qualification. “We’re not saying people shouldn’t be flying at all but equally we have to fly less, not more,” says Bates. “One problem is that a few people are taking the majority of flights.”

“The flying that we can do should be distributed more evenly. People should be able to take short haul-flights now and then, for example a return trip to Rome every 18 months or so, or one return flight to Australia every 17 years, but there should be an escalating amount of tax slapped on frequent fliers.”

Could the face of the holiday end up changing? Might the expression “jetting off on holiday” not necessarily apply in future? “We have to remember that flying is the most carbon-intensive way of travelling,” says Bates. “We need to travel by train and boat more but that hasn’t been affordable. The incentives need to change. And we should look to holiday in the UK more.” Some might say that final point amounts to swapping the suntan lotion for an umbrella and a gloomy expression but the rise in staycations shows that others think you can have just as much fun closer to home.

Holiday departure boards may once again learn to herald English seaside resorts, our heritage towns and even the yurt-friendly green valleys of Devon. Just not at airports.

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