The Economist has an interesting leader on action to curb greenhouse emissions on aircraft (subscription only). I was most surprised to read that airlines pay no tax on fuel for international flights. It makes the point that aircraft may only contribute around 3% of man-made carbon emissions (compared to 22% from vehicles), but they are damaging in a number of other ways that exacerbate the greenhouse effect.
Excessive regulation would unnecessarily restrict individual choice and throttle an industry that makes both rich and poor countries better off. On the other hand, airlines no less than any other industry must pay for pollution.
As the debate grows, some flyers may reconsider their ways. Put frankly, air travel makes a mockery of many people’s attempts to live a green life. Somebody who wants to reduce his “carbon footprint” can bicycle to work, never buy aerosols and turn off his air-conditioner—and still blow away all this virtue on a couple of long flights. And, although other forms of transport cannot easily replace flying, demand for many flights is sensitive to price. A quarter of flying is business-related; many of those journeys are essential, but others achieve only marginally more than a telephone call or video conference. As for stag-nights in Prague and student spring breaks in Jamaica—well, the gangs of drunken revellers probably wouldn’t notice if they were in Blackpool or Daytona Beach instead, as indeed many were a decade ago.
However, addressing individuals’ consciences won’t go that far. Air pollution is a collective problem, which in this case requires government action—or, to be more accurate, a change in policy. As it stands, the market is skewed in favour of air travel; the aim should be to make it more balanced. Two approaches are on offer. Some think the best way to limit emissions is to tax them; others argue for a system that sets a cap on pollution, and lets polluters trade the right to emit.
Certainly I can say that there is a lot of unnecessary business travel. Where I work it seems that whenever we want some work done from a software vendor they are keen to fly someone(s) out (at our expense) to work on the problem in person, when they could solve it just as easily back in London, Singapore or Bangalore with a few phone calls.
It seems so obvious that a carbon tax on all emissions, which can be offset by combining them with reductions in income and company tax is just such an obvious approach. At least in Europe they are trying something. Where as we are left with the ad hoc “hey lets start a nuclear power industry” approach to cutting greenhouse emissions.