The Fight to Green the Eco-Unfriendly Skies

Steering aviation toward less pollution


| August 23, 2007


Hundreds of people have gathered in a field outside London's Heathrow Airport over the past week to protest a proposed expansion of the busy international hub and to call attention to air travel's ecologically harmful effects. While the auto industry tends to garner much of the media's attention when it comes to calling out climate-change culprits, the protests at Heathrow reveal a growing effort to challenge the airline industry to minimize its carbon footprint.

Air travel currently makes up a relatively small percentage of overall carbon emissions, but as Mark Rice-Oxley of the Christian Science Monitor reports, that will likely change as flying's popularity continues to grow. Rice-Oxley cites estimates that air travel could nearly triple in the next 20 to 30 years, and more travel means more pollution. Carbon dioxide isn't the only problem people have to worry about with air travel, Rice-Oxley writes, as airplanes also give off 'nitrous oxide, thought to have at least double the impact of CO2, and condensation trails, which also may contribute to global warming.'

In the United States, efforts to curb aviation's environmental impact have been mired in a political morass. In 2003, Congress instigated an overhaul of the aviation industry called the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NexGen) that, according to Megan Tady of In These Times, has obscured rather than addressed environmental problems. NexGen is being overseen by the Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO), a board that so far has focused its attentions on air-travel capacity and growth, not environmental issues. In fact, Tady notes that the board's recent reports to Congress 'highlight noise pollution and local air quality' as the primary environmental issues. Climate change is not on the agenda. Though the JPDO may be in the perfect position to steer air travel toward a more sustainable future, Tady reports that the organization seems intent on obfuscating the realities regarding aviation's impact on climate change.

Though Great Britain also has lagged when it comes to evaluating the effects of airplane emissions on climate change, the limited debate in the country has been no more fruitful. According to the Economist, members of the British Parliament are trying to include emissions from air travel in the European Union's Emissions Trading Scheme, a multinational effort to curb greenhouse gas emissions. More substantive solutions to the overall problem, however, have yet to materialize. The issue continues to get bogged down in complex policy debate about taxation and emissions trading.

Politicians may push policy change as a pragmatic solution for the problems with aviation, but as the Christian Science Monitor's Rice-Oxley writes: 'For the hundreds of climate-change activists who've camped out by Heathrow Airport this week, there is just one way to reduce aircrafts' carbon footprint: stop flying.'

Go there >> Air Travel Latest Target in Climate Change Fight