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Up in the air

September 1, 2004 12:00 AM
By Paul Burall in Challenge
easyJet Airbus A319 Aeroplane flying

The rise of cheap, short haul flights have lead to a massive increase in the use of air travel. But can we afford the environmental cost?

Paul Burall urges anyone with an interest in the environment to take part in the Lib Dem's debate on aviation policy

Aviation is the subject of one of the policy consultations to be held at the Party's Bournemouth conference (on the morning of Sunday 19 September, to be exact). It is a crucial test of the Party's environmental credentials, for this is an issue that clearly pits short-term economic and social benefit against the long-term welfare of the planet and its inhabitants.

And it is crucial that those who understand the environmental imperative of curbing climate change emissions contribute to the debate, for the consultation paper that provides the background for the discussion under-estimates the seriousness of the threat to an embarrassing degree.

The paper begins with a nerd's-eye of the history of aviation and revels in the availability of cheap flights. True, the paper eventually gets round to what it calls the 'downsides', including climate change emissions, noise and congestion. And hope rises when it calls for the issues to be considered by reflecting 'on our starting position - our basic principles'.

But the principles outlined are heavily biased towards the undoubted benefits of aviation: travel encourages knowledge, freedom, wealth-creation and so on. The basic principle that 'Each generation is responsible for the fate of our planet' - to quote the preamble to the Party's Constitution - is ignored and environmental concerns are reduced to the fact that aviation does not pay the full costs of the environmental damage that it causes.

The bias is highlighted by the way that the paper treats the views of the authoritative Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. True, it says that the Commission's 'major concerns... need to be addressed'. But it neither summarises those concerns nor responds to them.

So what is the Commission saying? In its 2002 report, the Commission said that 'Air travel will become one of the major sources of anthropogenic climate change by 2050'; it expressed particular concern about short-haul flights and about air freight, pointing out that far less damaging transport modes are available; and it pointed out that technical solutions were unlikely except in the very long-term. More recently, the Commission has suggested that nearly 75% of the UK's greenhouse impact could be coming from aviation by 2050.

Of course, Lib Dem LibDem consultation paper does include some good suggestions, especially those aimed at reducing the number of empty seats on aircraft. And it makes clear that aviation should be seen as part of an integrated transport system.

But where are the (readily-available) figures comparing the energy intensity per passenger kilometre of air travel with other modes? Where are the facts about the fuel use for the aircraft on regional routes? And where is consideration of environmentally-friendly technologies called for in the remit from the Federal Policy Committee?

The paper suggest some questions for discussion. Here are a few that it does not ask but perhaps should:

Aviation is a key issue for anyone concerned about what sort of place we will be bequeathing to our children and grand-children.

If you can't get to the Bournemouth session, please get hold of a copy of the paper and submit your views directly.

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