Aviation’s worst nightmare is that governments searching for quick solutions to the climate crisis might be tempted to curb demand for air travel, which accounts for roughly 2.5 per cent of global CO₂ emissions.
Last month, UN secretary-general António Guterres turned up the heat when he said that the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change showed a “quantum leap” in climate action was now required if warming was to be limited to 1.5C.
So there was a huge sigh of relief from airlines when the Dutch government lost its legal battle last week to cap flights at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, in an effort to reduce noise and pollution. One of the most aggressive attempts to address the environmental impacts of aviation appeared to have been stopped in its tracks.
But that ruling was not the victory it seemed. The decision was based on a technicality, and the government has not yet said it will abandon its attempt to shrink Schiphol.
The day before, perhaps in hopes of averting the worst, the state-owned airport announced its own restrictions. Schiphol will ban night flights, private jets and noisy aircraft, and has said it will reverse plans to build a new runway.
But some in the industry worry that even this voluntary shrinking will not suffice. “It will be very difficult to avoid demand management,” says one veteran aviation industry executive. “Our solutions are medium to long-term. The sheer speed of climate change is such that . . . we need to reduce emissions much more drastically than we thought.”
Aviation’s most ardent defenders have many arguments for why Schiphol’s situation will not herald a flood of copycat measures. The cap was because of controversy over noise and high nitrogen emissions, rather than the climate crisis, say some. Private aviation will migrate elsewhere, which does not lower emissions, say others.
But whether or not the cap was prompted by climate concerns is almost irrelevant. “On the face of it, this looks like a clear signal of things to come,” says the industry executive.
It is increasingly apparent that the sector’s decarbonisation road maps, which rely on the widespread use of sustainable aviation fuel, operational efficiencies and technological breakthroughs, will struggle to deliver net zero emissions by 2050.
According to the International Council on Clean Transportation, only under the most optimistic scenario do CO₂ emissions stabilise at near-zero levels by 2050. “To get to 1.5C, out-of-sector action and/or significant direct curbs to traffic growth would be needed,” the ICCT said last year. The UK’s Climate Change Committee has reached a similar conclusion.
This is especially true as air travel roars back after pandemic-enforced lockdowns. The risk is, as aircraft return to the skies and noise and climate concerns converge, the industry will find itself under even greater scrutiny.
In some countries, that is already happening. Last week, France’s transport minister proposed a 70 per cent increase in fuel tax on private jets. He is also pushing for a tougher EU-wide approach to private aircraft, which are substantially more polluting per passenger than commercial aviation, although they account for a relatively small share of overall aviation emissions.
Politicians find it easier to target so-called “fat cats”. But from there, it might not be so hard to go after frequent flyers on commercial jets. According to the ICCT, the richest 2 per cent of the global population takes 40 per cent of all flights. No surprise, then, that pressure is mounting for a frequent flyer levy that penalises the wealthiest.
These and other initiatives, such as carbon pricing, are all forms of demand management, making airfares more costly. But realists in the industry know demand cannot continue to grow faster than the sector can cut emissions. Augustin de Romanet, chief executive of French airport operator Aéroports de Paris, has openly admitted that demand growth has to slow for a time — at least in developed countries — if aviation is to navigate a difficult transition.
The question now is how that will be done.
Aviation can ignore or even lobby furiously against the threat of demand management. That would be a mistake. The better option for the industry, passengers and the climate would be to engage in a constructive debate about how much growth is compatible with ambitions for pollution-free flights.