Aviation - frequently asked questions

Last edited 13 June 2007 at 3:50pm

Aviation accounts for 13 per cent of UK's total climate impact

What is aviation's contribution to climate change?
The aviation industry claims it's only responsible for two per cent of CO2 emissions. According to the government though, aviation accounts for 13 per cent of the UK's total climate impact (this figure takes into account greenhouse gases other than CO2 and the fact that pollutants are dumped straight into the atmosphere, at altitude). Flying causes 10 times more climate change than taking the train.

But the main danger aviation poses to the planet is the rate of its growth. Long-term growth trends show that flying is the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK. In the 1990s alone, emissions from flights doubled. Meeting our 2050 emissions targets will be made virtually impossible if plans for aviation growth do go ahead (see this research (pdf) from the Tyndall Centre).

What does Greenpeace want?
Firstly, we don't want to stop people from flying. We do want to prevent the number of flights from growing to dangerous levels - the growth in aviation is ruining our chances of stopping dangerous climate change.

To achieve this, companies like BA need to end their needless short haul routes, and the government needs to ban all mainland domestic routes, where the train is an easy alternative. Most importantly the government must end plans for airport expansion.

But then we'll just be left with overpriced trains, which are in a terrible state
Climate change threatens billions of lives and is already costing this country billions of pounds, and yet Britain's transport system, which relies significantly on aviation, is still massively carbon intensive. The government needs to stop subsidising the aviation industry to the tune of billions of pounds, and to transfer those subsidies to the rail industry. There really is no time left for excuses; the government urgently needs to encourage a low-carbon transport system with lower prices for public transport tickets and a higher capacity.

But even now, with subsidies skewed in favour of aviation, walk-on fares outside of peak hours are cheaper for trains than planes on several domestic routes. And, when you take into account the time it takes to travel to and from airports plus check in and boarding, the train often works out to be quicker than the plane too.

One example: the most popular domestic route out of Heathrow is to Manchester, which is only a couple of hours by train. Virgin, which doesn't fly domestic routes, is introducing more trains from London to Manchester next year, so that a service will run every 20 minutes. This is surely a more constructive response to climate change than British Airways, which keeps introducing new domestic flights on routes that are already well served by trains, and by other airlines.

What about people's "right to fly"?
Around 729 million people in the world's poorest countries never fly and, ironically, it will be these people who will be worst affected by climate change (an estimated 180 million will die in Sub-Saharan Africa this century if climate change goes unchecked). A right to a life, a home and a healthy standard of living seem far more fundamental than any "right to fly".

At the moment, people from the UK fly more than almost any other nation (one in five of the world's international flights leave or land here). And we're not asking people to stop flying; we're asking that the rapid growth in aviation be stopped, so that emissions from aviation are kept under control.

By the way, it's a common misconception that the growth in cheap flights has allowed people in lower income bands to fly. Figures compiled by Oxford University (pdf) suggest that cheap flights haven't created better access to air travel for the poor; they've just allowed people with more money to fly more often. About three-quarters of flights taken by UK citizens are taken by the middle and upper classes.

But won't technological improvements in planes solve the problem?
Almost certainly not, unfortunately. According to the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, the anticipated changes to aircraft design will only deliver relatively small reductions in CO2. Any radically new aircraft design, they say, is decades away - by which time it will be too late to prevent catastrophic climate change. And any CO2 reductions from better plane design would be swallowed up by the massive increase in the number of flights.

If we want to keep aviation emissions below dangerous levels, the government needs to act: banning domestic mainland routes and putting a stop to airport expansion. See our main aviation page for more info.

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