The Aviation Sector's Rampant Growth Must Be Reined In

Just emissions aren't the problem. More fliers mean more airports and longer runways, for which thousands of hectares of land is required.

It’s just not working. The sixth Global Environment Outlook (GEO6) report released in March this year warns that even if countries achieve their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) under the 2015 Paris Agreement, which they are far from doing, this will be just a third of the mitigation needed to restrict the rise of global temperatures by 1.5-2º C by 2100. In fact, the GEO6 states that this limit will be reached by the middle of this century and likely 2.7-3º C by 2100.

To prevent this, emissions have to drop by 40-70% globally by 2050, and to net zero by 2070. Instead, they went up by 3% in 2017. So we are staring at an environmental apocalypse.

The problem is simple. The world, especially the developed countries, simply has to change its lifestyle, its reckless consumption and move to a simpler and more sustainable way of life. People have to waste less food and water, travel more sensibly, reduce their increasing dependence on power-guzzling technologies to make life easier, shop less and recycle. Minimalism has to be the biggest NDC of all. One area of human activity that could do with more attention on this count is aviation, which poses a looming threat that most people are not aware of.

The global aviation sector accounts for 3.5% of the world’s total emissions; in absolute terms, the figure is expected to reach 1.25 billion tonnes by 2030 because of its use of fossil fuels. Governments have allowed it to grow unchecked because it was excluded from restrictions under the Kyoto Protocol. As a result, it is growing at 7.5% per annum (the figure for India is 17%). The total number of fliers in 2017 was 4.1 billion. There are 42,000 commercial flights a day in the US alone, and 34,000 in Europe. The ultra-rich exacerbate this problem by the indiscriminate use of private jets. According to airliners.net, there are between 25,000 and 30,000 private aircraft worldwide.

The projections are even more worrying. According to Boeing, 39,600 additional aircraft will be required by 2038 and the number of fliers will grow to 7.8 billion. More recently, a BBC report prompted widespread concern after it revealed 1,500 private jets had been used used to ferry world leaders to Davos in January 2019.

Just emissions aren’t the problem. More fliers mean more airports and longer runways, for which thousands of hectares of land is required. This land has to be denuded of all green cover, placed close to urban centres, potentially displace thousands of families and potentially concretise agricultural land. The civil aviation ministry in India has just announced it will build 20 more airports.

The government has already started acquiring 5,000 ha of agricultural land for Delhi’s second airport, at Jewar in Uttar Pradesh. Hundreds of farmers will be displaced. Mumbai’s new airport will require the conversion of 4,500 acres of wetland. This can only accentuate Mumbai’s annual flooding woes, apart from destroying the homes of at least 250 bird species.

No sector should grow to cater to the rich at the cost of the poor. Simple mitigation will not work. According to the US Government Accountability Office, measures such as technical innovations in air-frames and engines, improvement of fuels, mandatory emission reduction targets or even tax on emissions won’t suffice to curb the expansion of the aviation sector. Governments around the world have to find more innovative policies to rein in this monster.

We can all agree that we should stop building more runways and airports, and if we don’t, then residents of the areas affected should oppose them. This will automatically reduce the number of flights. Londoners have been fighting tooth and nail for the last decade to stall the approval of a third runway at Heathrow. Governments should simultaneously upgrade the railways to offer an alternative almost as fast but less expensive. In this context, the plan to introduce 160 super-fast trains in India over the next two years is a welcome step – but the identification of routes should not become populist. The emphasis should be to connect metropolitan centres and routes where there is maximum air traffic.

Also read: India Wants Aviation Carbon Cap to Follow Paris Pact

A single train can obviate the need for at least six wide-bodied aircraft. Rail tickets should be subsidised. If the government can spend thousands of crores to build and maintain airports, it should not balk at this incentive. A heavy carbon tax should be imposed on all air tickets to reduce demand. This would also recoup the subsidy on rail tickets. Private aircraft should be banned altogether. The natural environment is a common heritage and everyone has a stake in it; it is not a corporate entity in which the rich can be allowed to have a controlling interest.

A global pushback against rampant expansion of this sector has already begun. Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Essex, faced widespread criticism when she flew a private jet in February to attend a baby shower in New York. Even more interestingly, an environment group in Sweden has reportedly launched a campaign to persuade people not to take flights in 2019. Their target is to obtain 100,000 pledges this year.

They make a very important point: governments cannot do everything. Citizens themselves have to exercise choices that are in the best interests of the planet and themselves. As the poet Mahmoud Darwish lamented: “Where should we go after the last frontiers? Where should the birds fly after the last sky?”

Avay Shukla retired from the Indian Administrative Service in December 2010. A keen environmentalist and trekker, he has published a book on high altitude trekking in the Himachal Himalayas – The Trails Less Travelled.