Check in for carbon trading

3 min read

A reduction in flying is not the answer to global warming, but a system of emissions trading is, argues British Airways’ Martin Broughton.

For the last two or three years, the aviation industry has been almost under siege from environmental critics.

According to George Monbiot, the archpriest of anti-aviation commentators, millions of lives in the developing world will be put at risk by droughts and storms, so we should reduce runway slots in the UK by 90 per cent… over the next 25 years.

Monbiot is an extreme critic but there are many in the media and political worlds with a similar view. The overall effect is creating a climate of opinion in which we are seen as environmental pariahs: blinkered, polluting dinosaurs more interested in next-generation mid-air mobiles than in the next generation.

The issue for the whole industry is how we respond and how we are seen to make environmental responsibility integral to our businesses.

So what should be done? We cannot pollute the atmosphere further with a volley of Ryanair verbals and pretend to ourselves that the problem does not exist. That is just dumb. And while we welcome Sir Richard Branson's recent entry into this debate, we need a more encompassing response than more white lines on the tarmac at Gatwick.

There are many valuable operational practices that can be implemented to save fuel burn and hence emissions. Everyone knows new aircraft use less fuel than their predecessors. That is why we are looking for fuel efficiency gains of 17 to 30 per cent when we start replacing our long-haul fleet.

But we are realists at British Airways. We recognise that these emissions gains for the industry are likely to be outweighed by future growth. What we need is a broader strategy.

The first requirement is to generate a more informed and rational debate and provide some context. Aviation may be one of the fastest-growing sources of CO2 emissions but it is still a small one.

According to the recent Stern Report on the economics of climate change, worldwide aviation produces 1.6 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions — less than one sixth of road transport, for example. Stern estimates aviation's figure will reach five per cent by 2050 if the industry does nothing to clean up its act. If we focus on UK aviation's share of global CO2 emissions, we see that it is barely one tenth of one per cent.

So if you closed down UK aviation tomorrow you would not have saved the planet, as some observers seem to think. Instead, you would have caused wanton damage to the economic interests of the public — for no perceptible environmental gain.

It follows that there is no justification for singling out aviation as the climate change whipping-boy. Seeking to tax UK aviation out of existence would not only be economically counter-productive, it would make no meaningful difference to global warming.

There is a crying need to balance the policy debate. The truth is we are being castigated for providing a public service. We do not fly around emitting carbon dioxide for some kind of perverse pleasure. We fly because people want us to.

People want to travel. They want to do business — to meet customers, suppliers and investors — because they want to create wealth for their companies, their families, their staff and their communities.

I have no doubt that the right policy response is to go with the grain of what society wants: an aviation sector that is environmentally responsible and focused on making real reductions in global carbon emissions. Carbon-safe flying, you might say.

Emissions trading is absolutely central to carbon reduction. Many people know that British Airways has led the way for the last seven years in pressing the case for aviation to be included in a system of emissions trading.

Our critics claim that carbon trading is a soft option for airlines - a cunning ruse for avoiding green taxes or for passing the buck to other sectors of the economy. These assertions are nonsense — and it is high time we said so. Talk of passing the buck in relation to climate change is irrelevant and absurd.

Climate change is a global problem requiring a global solution. It does not matter whether you reduce emissions in Heathrow, Harare or Hindustan — provided the overall effect is to reduce global emissions.

Carbon trading gives companies in all industries a simple choice: if you don't cut your emissions, you must pay for someone else to. If that extra cost makes you uncompetitive, you will face a very serious problem.

Aviation meets a public demand. It underpins the livelihoods of millions of people. It is an economic and social good that is integral to the 21st century way of life. Our customers understand this, as they equally understand that action to combat climate change is essential — and expect us to play our full part.

Edited extracts of a speech by Martin Broughton, chairman of British Airways, to The Aviation Club