10 September 2000

Airlines called to account as pollution grows

By Geoffrey Lean, Environment Correspondent

Airline chiefs from around the world have been called to an emergency summit next week to address the growing impact of aeroplanes on the Earth's climate.

There is now overwhelming evidence that international air travel is the fastest-growing and most polluting form of transport, yet governments have so far exempted it from the treaty to combat global warming. Yesterday, American scientists announced that the area of thinning ozone above Antarctic is now three times bigger than the US, thanks to the presence of polluting chemicals in the stratosphere.click to enlarge

The meeting of regulatory authorities, which takes place in Seattle, will recommend ways of controlling the emissions of gases including carbon dioxide, the main cause of the climate change.

Air travel has been doubling every eight years since 1960, growing two-and-a-half times as fast as the world economy. Planes now emit more carbon dioxide worldwide than all the cars, homes, offices and factories in Britain put together.

Their emissions are expected to triple between 1990 and 2015, counteracting attempts to cut pollution elsewhere. But aviation fuel is exempt from taxation, and the industry is estimated to receive £30bn each year in direct and indirect subsidies in Europe alone.

Though countries must control pollution from domestic flights under the Kyoto Protocol, the treaty in fighting global warming agreed three years ago, international aviation has been excluded.

Next week's meeting, under the auspices of the UN's International Civil Aviation Organisation, is designed to counter growing protests at this special treatment, by drawing up the organisation's own scheme for controlling emissions. If approved by the organisation's governing body next year, it will be presented to a meeting of the parties to the treaty in November 2001.

Britain wants a worldwide tax on air fuel. In March, the European Commission supported the principle of having one for flights within and between its member countries, but then concluded that it would not be "practical or desirable" as it would put European airlines at a disadvantage.

The industry vigorously opposes any suggestion of a tax, and is instead pressing for a "voluntary agreement" to curb emissions. Neil Kinnock, when EU Transport Commissioner, also backed a voluntary approach, and next week's meeting is expected to favour one too.

But environmentalists say the industry will never voluntarily control itself properly. An authoritative report published by Britain's Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) last month, and partly funded by such unlikely bedfellows as British Airways, BP Amoco and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, agreed.

"The history of voluntary agreements across the world is that they are complex, opaque, and protracted," it said. "There are very few that have delivered genuinely ambitious environmental goals, without a legally enforceable compliance mechanism." But it also concluded that the chances of the world implementing a global charge on aircraft emissions are "extremely small".

It proposed that the world should agree to cut emissions of carbon dioxide from international air travel as a whole by 5.2 per cent by 2008-2012, the same reduction industrialised countries agreed to make under the Kyoto Protocol.

Each country would be allocated a fixed amount of emissions from aircraft within this target. Permits could be traded. The IPPR report does not expect this to reduce air travel, but to encourage airlines to develop cleaner technologies.