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Air Travel and Climate Change

compiled by Linda Gamlin


Between 2000 and 2020, the number of people passing through UK airports is due to double from 180 million per year to 400 million per year, according to Government figures. To meet this demand would require the equivalent, according to some estimates, of FOUR new Heathrow airports and EIGHT new Gatwicks.


The government is enthusiastically supporting this gross expansion of air travel at the same time as saying it wants to take action against climate change. They don’t seem to realise that they are contradicting themselves. The plan is to expand almost every airport in Britain and build huge new concrete runways across green fields at Stansted, Birmingham, Heathrow and Edinburgh.


The government is ignoring its own advisors - the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, the Environmental Audit Committee, and the Sustainable Development Commission - who are all saying that this is a dangerous and destructive policy.


Jet travel is terrible for climate change: not only do planes use a lot of fuel, and therefore pump out tons of carbon dioxide - but the altitude at which they fly, and the other exhaust gases they produce, means that the actual impact on climate change is THREE TIMES what it would seem to be from the carbon dioxide alone. You can work out the real impact of any flight at the Choose Climate website on


Aviation is the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions – although it accounts for only 3.5% of our emissions today, at current predicted growth rates, it could account for up to 20% by 2030. Aviation is not covered by the Kyoto Protocol (because the countries couldn't decide how to allocate CO2 emissions since aircraft fly between different nations).


If you want more detail about the effects of aircraft emissions, see the box below.




What’s in that vapour trail?


Aircraft produce three gases that contribute to global warming: H2O (water vapour), CO2 (carbon dioxide) and NOx (various different oxides of nitrogen). The first two are produced by burning the fuel (kerosene). The NOx come from burning nitrogen that is naturally in the atmosphere. Normally, nitrogen is inert stuff, and doesn't get altered when things burn, but the extremely high temperatures at which aircraft engines run are a different story – they turn nitrogen into nitrogen oxides.


The water vapour is what creates condensation trails (contrails) - clouds of tiny ice crystals. Contrails disperse and sometimes cover the whole sky - over Germany, for example, the average coverage is about 6%.


Contrails do reflect a little sunlight away from earth, which has a cooling effect, but unfortunately, like carbon dioxide, they also reflect back to earth a great deal of infra-red (heat) radiation which would otherwise escape to space. Overall, the contrails have a warming effect.


NOx emissions from aircraft have an extremely complex effect on the atmosphere and on climate, but the bottom line is that they push temperatures up. For more details see the 'Choose Climate' website ( ).


A commercial plane can burn over 200 tons of kerosene fuel in one flight. If you look at the 'Choose Climate' website you can calculate the volume of CO2 emitted per passenger for any given flight, and compare this to the level of carbon dioxide emissions per person per year that could be permitted if we were all living in a sustainable climate-friendly way.


A very rough estimate is that a plane uses about as much fuel, and therefore produces about as much carbon dioxide as would every passenger driving one car the same distance. However, you need to multiply this BY THREE to get the real impact on climate change, because the water vapour and NOx treble the effect of the carbon dioxide. (This calculation comes from the "Special Report on Aviation" published by the "Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change" (IPCC) in April 1999. Note that trebling is an approximation - the detailed calculations are difficult because the effects of NOx are so complex - the best estimates are that the effect of air flight on climate change is 2-5 times greater than that of the carbon dioxide emitted.)


By comparison, trains produce about 1/3rd as much CO2 per passenger-kilometer as if each passenger went by car - and trains have the great advantage that they could, ultimately, be run on renewable sources of electricity.



The mystery of cheap flights (& that means all  flights)


Even flights sold at the normal rate are under-priced – the cost of the ticket bears no relation to the true environmental cost.


Given that they use so much fuel, why on earth are flights so cheap? One reason is that no tax is paid on aircraft fuel. A litre of fuel costs the airlines one fifth of the price at a roadside petrol pump (which is also why flown-in fruit and vegetables are economically feasible).  And because airports and airlines are a prestige symbol, they are heavily subsidised by governments. The UK Government is currently subsidising the aviation industry to the tune of around £7 billion/ year


Oil itself is ridiculously cheap. If you think about where oil originated, it took many millions of years for tiny creatures in the sea to capture sunlight energy and CO2 and store the carbon in oil reserves - yet we pay only for the cost of the oil. Because it is not truly valued, and priced appropriately, we squander this limited resource.


In addition, flights are cheap because the atmosphere is a global commons, free for everyone (in theory) to use. The emissions from aircraft impose a great burden on the world's climate which will be borne by everyone, including those who have never flown in their lives. The highest price will be paid in some of the poorest countries of the world, such as Bangladesh, which are vulnerable to storm damage, drought or rising sea-level. In economists’ jargon, we need to "internalise" these costs, which are currently "externalities".


Another reason that flights are cheap is because they are fuel-intensive, whereas other forms of public transport, such as railways, are more labour-intensive. People's labour is taxed heavily through income tax. If we increased fuel taxes, we could decrease labour taxes, and train tickets could become cheaper.


Many of the poorest in the UK are suffering from fuel poverty, because heating fuel is taxed - yet air fuel is not taxed. According to figures from Caroline Lucas MEP (her website is well worth a look), those who don't fly are subsidising those who do, to the tune of £183 per person nationwide.


What about the local impact on our environment ?


More airports, more runways, many more flights – forgetting climate change for a minute, what effect does all this have on the environment right here and now?


Noise from aircraft has genuine and significant health effects, as does the fear of crashes. In addition, a recent study by researchers at the University of London shows that the reading ability of children living under flight paths is worse than that of children in similar economic circumstances elsewhere. The European Court has decreed that night flights deprive people of their human right to a decent night's sleep. Overall, the poor are more likely to live under flight paths.


There is still some unspoiled countryside left in our country, and this is precious and irreplacable. Noise ruins everyday life, holidays, weekends away - everything. In a small island such as ours, where we already have many airports, plus the nerve-shattering noise of RAF training flights in many rural areas, further airport expansion is madness. If we spoil more and more of our own countryside, and make it so noisy that there are no quiet green places to relax – then what ? Well, you will just have to get on a plane to get away from it all…


So what can you do?


As individuals, there are things we can do to improve the situation, firstly as informed consumers, and secondly as campaigners.


Informed Consumer Actions


q       As far as possible - DON'T FLY! Planes threaten to destroy the very world we want to see and enjoy – coral reefs, for example. Think hard about it before you hop on a plane – is it really what you want to do? Regard air travel as a privilege and a luxury, as it used to be, and still is for most of the world’s population.


q       Take the train, not the plane: trains are much more environmentally-friendly, and over distances of 200-300 miles, the train can be faster (from city centre to city centre) than a journey that includes a flight. For excellent and detailed information about train travel from the UK to Europe, within Europe, and even across Asia, Africa, America, and Australasia, check out the website called at ‘The Man in Seat 61’ at The website is run by Mark Smith, from Buckinghamshire who ‘as well as doing my own fair share of traveling around the world on trains, ships, and other civilised forms of travel…have worked as a European rail agent issuing tickets and advising other travel agents on train travel across Europe”. He covers some travel by ship as well.


q       Holiday in the UK, or travel within Europe and go by train (so much less stressful – the European trains are fast and luxurious.) Tell people with pride that you take holidays close to home and travel by train.


q       Is your business journey really necessary? Try telephone or video conferences instead of flying to face to face meetings. There's a considerable saving in valuable time, and costs, as well as the environmental benefits.


q       If you really must fly on occasions, salve your conscience by making a donation to Climate Care (see box below).


q       When shopping, beware Food Miles. Remember "Eat food not oil": fruit out of season may have traveled thousands of miles. (Let me know if you don’t have a copy of the Action Sheet on finding local food in Cambridge.) Fresh flowers ostensibly trucked from Holland may have been flown to Holland from Africa.


q       Businesses can also help minimise climate change by using local suppliers where possible, rather than overseas ones whose product is delivered by air freight.



Campaigning Actions


q       There are local movements opposed to airport expansion all over the country, and you could join one or more of  these – for example the campaigns against the expansion of Stansted and Heathrow:


Stop Stansted Campaign - See the website for a long list of ways to support the campaign. Stop Stansted Expansion: PO Box 311, Takeley, Bishop's Stortford, Herts. CM22 6PY


Heathrow Airport - Noise and pollution is already a big problem at Heathrow: in some parts of London and the Thames Valley there is a plane landing every 90 seconds. This lively campaign welcomes new people to get involved in its many activities. HACAN ClearSkies: 13 Stockwell Road, London, SW9 9AU


There are also campaign groups in Birmingham, the East Midlands, Coventry, Wolverhampton and Manchester, and Swansea. Airport Watch is the umbrella body for all these groups. You can register online for information on what is happening at


q       Local opposition to airports is useful – BUT it is vitally important also to build a NATIONAL anti-airport expansions movement – “a genuinely joined-up, integrated national campaign” as Caroline Lucas puts it. Only in that way can people resist attempts to play one individual campaign off against another, with promises of putting an airport in place A rather than place B.


Any such campaign should require that the full cost of air travel be paid by travelers & by the aviation industry. The aviation industry argues that such measures as fuel taxes and emission charges put them at a competitive disadvantage compared to those countries where no such tax or charge is levied. Action at the EU level, or via a Simultaneous Policy initiative, is therefore vital.


A tax on aviation fuel would require: either international consensus at the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) or the renegotiation of thousands of bilateral air service agreements. An Emissions Charge, by contrast, could be levied by the EU alone on all flights arriving at, or departing from, EU airports, irrespective of the nationality of the air carrier. It would therefore be relatively easy to introduce, and would answer the concerns about international competitiveness.


Another idea – again from Caroline Lucas - let's have an Air Traffic Reduction Bill! As part of that, we could ask that the Government imposes a tax on all domestic air flights. (The US does it!) More realistic landing fees would also help. If demand for air travel is managed, rather than allowed to grow in an uncontrolled way, there will be no need for additional runways, let alone new airports.


Finally, a coherent campaign about air travel, should highlight the ill-effects of encouraging poor countries to base their economies heavily on tourism.


q       Air Miles schemes have perverse environmental effects: they encourage air travel which otherwise might not take place. Boycott them, and encourage others to do the same.


q       Do not support fund-raising ideas that involve air travel – you know the kind of thing – “please sponsor my trek up the Himalayas for charity”. If people want to find interesting ways of raising funds for a 'good cause', it should be possible to do it in an environmentally-responsible way,


q       Campaign for more public education on the impacts of aviation. Protest to newspapers and television that constantly promote flying and exotic holidays (often alongside reports about climate change!) Talk to people you know about the damage that air travel does to the planet – it is possible to do this without being a killjoy, if you approach the subject with humour. Stress the positive aspects of not flying.


q       Sign THE AIRPORT PLEDGE – at


This is a petition with a difference - it contains the real threat that the people who sign it will be active and determined. The organisers believe that if enough people join the pledge, the risks of large scale opposition will force the government to reconsider its plans.


The Airport Pledge shows the government the real threat it

faces from the large number of people opposing this policy. The people who sign it say that ‘if the government refusesto back away from its policy, I will take personal action to block airport expansion and to prevent companies from supporting and funding it”.


What action people take is their personal choice but the pledge helps them with updates and ideas of what they can do.


The pledge is managed by a broad coalition of environment and transport groups including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, People and Planet, and Transport 2000. The pledge is hosted by the climate change campaign network, Rising Tide.  They can send you a pile of pledges to pass on to your friends or your workmates, or stock in your local shops and cafes. Alternatively you can download the pledge to print from the website and make your own copies:


You could also help to fund this excellent campaign: The Pledge is running on a shoestring with the help of volunteers. Donations will assist with the cost of mailings and printing new pledges. Please send cheques to 16B Cherwell Street, Oxford, OX4 1BG

(Tel: 01865 241097) – make cheques payable to: 'Airport Pledge c/o Rising Tide'.



Easing your conscience


There are several different organisations that claim to be able to make you ‘carbon neutral’ – in other words, to take some money from you and use it to compensate for all the carbon dioxide you emit. If you book a holiday with a right-on ecotourism outfit, they may suggest this as a way to compensate for your flight. So is this the answer to all our problems? Not quite.


Most of the ‘carbon neutral’ organisations plant trees, which, when they are young and growing, absorb carbon dioxide from the air and use it to make cellulose and lignin (wood). This is sometimes called ‘carbon sequestration’. A tree trunk is a carbon bank, or ‘carbon sink’ in the current jargon. The carbon stays safely locked up for the lifetime of that tree (and afterwards, if the tree is cut but not burned – burning sends the carbon back into the air as carbon dioxide).


You may be aware of some controversy around ‘carbon neutral’ organisations. There have been ome really terrible schemes that involved cutting down existing tracts of tropical rainforest and replacing them with fast-growing non-native trees. Clearly this is very damaging environmentally, and such schemes have richly deservedly the bad publicity they have received. But this doesn't mean that all tree-planting schemes are misguided.  If native trees are used, and the land was already cleared of trees, and is not particularly useful in other ways - marginal agricultural land, for example - then such schemes have some merit.


But it is important to recognise that, on a worldwide scale, this isn’t a magic solution to the climate change problem – absorbing all the carbon dioxide we are releasing would require much too much forest area. The world would turn into one huge gloomy Forestry Commission plantation. And mature forests no longer soak up carbon dioxide – it is only while the trees are growing that it works.


Climate Care ( is one of the better organisations in this area, with a number of different and well thought-out projects to offset carbon emissions. One is re-planting an area of poor agricultural land that was once rainforest, within what is officially a National Park in Uganda. They are using native trees, working closely with local people, providing employment, and aiming to extend the habitat of the chimpanzees in the nearby surviving forests.  Other projects include distributing energy-saving light bulbs to low-income households in South Africa, and capturing methane (a real baddie – much worse for global warming than carbon dioxide) from disused coal mines in the UK and using it to generate electricity. The Climate Care people give the impression working with great integrity.


If you want to make amends for your past carbon emissions (which are still floating about there in the atmosphere, doing their worst), and salve your conscience over current ones that you can't avoid,  Climate Care seem a good choice. But it is vital to realise that this isn’t nearly enough in global terms – if you want to halt climate change, you do need to significantly reduce your personal emissions as well. 



** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** **

Checklist of websites for some of the organisations and individuals mentioned above:


The Airport Pledge -

Airport Watch  -

Caroline Lucas -

Choose Climate -

Climate Care -

The Man in Seat 61 –

Rising Tide -

Friends of the Earth -

Greenpeace -

Transport 2000 -

People & Planet -



March 2005


For Socialist Unity ~ For Internationalism ~ For Peace ~ For Justice ~ For Unity ~ For Socialism