Friday, July 3, 2015

Air Travel and Climate Change

The long-running saga of London's Heathrow airport and its need for a 3rd runway took a next turn yesterday with a commission report that made a convincing case: Heathrow is at capacity, London continues to grow as a global financial center, demand is expected to rise by a whopping 200% in coming decades. On the other hand, the usual suspects--noise, pollution, degradation of adjacent neighborhoods--defeated the runway once before, and may do so again, since their champion is London's flamboyant mayor, and the Tory party's shadow leader, Boris Johnson. Yesterday's report changed the odds, but didn't resolve the issue.

Entirely missing from the New York Times (AP) article, and only mentioned in passing by the Guardian, is another troublesome fact: airplanes are major emitters of greenhouse gases, with no real technological remedy in sight, and the quick fixes--crowding more people onto fully booked flights--largely played out. So how will the UK--and every other wealthy country, and some not-so-wealthy ones--address the fact that ever-increasing demand for air travel is at cross purposes with essential climate goals?

It's a thorny problem, but Guardian columnist Andrew Simms wades in with some useful thoughts. Decrying air travel's "massive carbon free-rider pass," Simms suggests we take a closer look at what generates the heavy demand. Business travel, an essential feature of the global economy? Not as much as you'd think: 11% of the UK's international flight traffic by his count. Middle class affluence? Half of the UK's population--the poorer half, one imagines--don't fly at all, while 15% of the population--from posh addresses--represent 70% of all flights, largely for "leisure" travel. These affluent 'frequent flyers,' as Simms perhaps hyperbolically notes, are headed mainly to "recognized tax havens." In any case, their flights are arguably inessential if not frankly self-indulgent.

What to do? Simms addresses the business travel question by noting the success of teleconferencing during the no-fly period that followed a volcanic eruption in Iceland a few years ago. Businesses found a low-carbon substitute for airplanes in the internet, and some have retained that model. For the rest, Simms suggests what any economist would: very high taxes to capture the externalized pollution costs of air travel, to reduce demand (and relieve the need for a new runway). But would this really work in the luxury travel market?

What I imagine is a small group of the highly privileged for whom price incentives don't work all that well. Raise taxes and drive out the price-sensitive middle class, while those tax-haven-bound high rollers will just pay--as they do for 1st class and other amenities--without really noticing the extra cost. Is this a feature only of luxury markets, or a paradigm for all carbon exchange markets? Will they be a mechanism to reduce emissions overall, or a way for the rich to fund our shared catastrophe with accumulated wealth so great they can--and do--spend it without regard? If airline travel--the discretionary kind--is ecologically unacceptable, does it help to raise the cost? Or does it need some other kind of control? These aren't the questions driving the Heathrow debate at present, but we can thank Mr. Simms for enlarging the debate in that direction.

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