Growth, Airlines and the Environment

Who pays for the cost of growth? Do the math. We’re all paying with our health, and very soon, with our viability as a species.

By Enrique Dans

The United Kingdom is studying the possibility of creating a specific tax for air transport, a carbon charge to offset airlines’ carbon dioxide emissions that would be passed on to passengers.

The proposal illustrates a key variable: the cost of growth. Globalization, deregulation and the low-cost revolution changed what was once a business directed at a wealthy few into something we can now all afford and that we see as perfectly normal, even if we claim to hate flying. The result has not only seen the aviation grow, but also tourism. But the cost to the environment has been enormous, and now we need to do something to mitigate it.

Who pays for the cost of growth? Do the math. We’re all paying with our health, and very soon, with our viability as a species. Mitigating the environmental cost of airlines means making their engines more fuel efficient, optimizing routes, using more sustainable fuels such as biofuel, etc., but also reducing growth by taking a more rational approach that would also provide obtain revenue for issues ranging from improving more sustainable transportation infrastructure such as trains, along with technologies to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and in the hopefully, not so long term, electric aviation. Nevertheless, there is more than a hint of irony about an airline inviting its customers to fly less or to fly responsibly and to consider other transportation options for shorter journeys: as KLM CEO Pieter Elbers notes:

“It is our business and we want to stay in business. We are stepping up to speed up progress towards a sustainable future, but we are a company that needs to make profit to survive and to continue to invest in sustainable solutions. We want to still be around when we have succeeded in our efforts to make aviation sustainable.”

The environmental cost of air transport is very high and in some countries where there is greater environmental awareness we have seen flight shame and campaigns such as Stay on the ground: opt for the train or the car, preferably electric, for trips we automatically take by airplane.

We tend to think that being able to fly at reasonable prices, allowing us to travel in ways our parents’ generation could only dream about, but there is always a price to pay for growth, and our planet has been telling us for some time that we went into the red a long time ago.

This post was previously published on Medium and is republished here with a Creative Commons license.

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