As long as demand for air travel keeps increasing at projected rates, there’s really not much the airline industry can do to reduce its carbon emissions, according to new research published by the University of Southampton.
Even the most strict limits the industry could set on carbon emissions would be outweighed by steady growth in air traffic over time, the study published in the journal Atmospheric Environment showed. The only way carbon emissions could feasibly be reduced in that industry is to decrease air travel demand by raising the price of tickets.
In calculating the ticket price necessary to drive down demand, researchers Matt Grote, John Preston, Ian Williams found that the price increase would have to be enough to value carbon emissions at up to one hundred times more than they are valued currently. This would amount to a 1.4 percent increase on ticket prices every year, Grote said. So a $1,000 flight to London this year would cost $1014 next year, $1028 the year after that, and so on.
Grote says that this goes against all predictions that the cost of airline travel should decrease as more people want to fly. He notes that the price of domestic flight tickets has steadily dropped by 1.3 percent every year between 1979 and 2012. The cost of international flights has decreased by 0.5 percent annually between 1990 and 2012.
But the researchers also note that, as more people want to fly, the airline industry will become more and more of a problem for the climate. At the moment, the industry only produces approximately two percent of all human-caused carbon emissions, according to The International Air Transport Association.
That number is relatively small compared to other industries. But as The International Council on Clean Transportation has shown, the airline industry is on track to contribute up to 15 percent of all human-caused carbon emissions by 2050 as demand for air travel rises, developing economies expand, and incomes increase.
“There is little doubt that increasing demand for air travel will continue for the foreseeable future,” study co-author Preston said. “As a result, civil aviation is going to become an increasingly significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.”
The researchers acknowledge that the idea of voluntarily reducing demand for a growing industry will likely be very negatively received; airline industry players and national governments would be unlikely to choose less carbon pollution over increased economic activity, they said.
Because of that, the researchers recommend what they call a global regulator “with teeth” that would enforce carbon emission reduction measures throughout the industry.
“Some mitigation measures can be left to the aviation sector to resolve,” said Williams, who heads up the University of Southampton’s Centre for Environmental Science. “For example, the industry will continue to seek improvements to fuel efficiency as this will reduce costs. However, other essential measures, such as securing international agreements, setting action plans, regulations and carbon standards will require political leadership at a global level.”
While Williams is likely correct that the airline industry will voluntarily take up measures to increase fuel efficiency, some are going even further, working to power some of their fleet with renewable biofuels instead of oil. Just last week, aircraft manufacturer Boeing Co. announced that it was teaming up with South African Airways to develop jet fuel from a new type of tobacco plant, deriving oil from its seeds and leaves.
Some environmental groups are already working to get the airline industry’s carbon emissions more strictly regulated as demand is projected to increase. The Center for Biological Diversity and Friends of the Earth both announced last week that they are planning to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to force it to craft specific carbon limitations for the industry.
“Because of the significant role that aircraft play in global climate change, and in light of the exponential growth projected in air travel, the United States must lead the way in regulating global warming pollutants from these sources,” the groups’ “intent to sue” letter states. “There is no time to lose.”