Consultation closed in October last year on the Government’s scoping document, Sustainable Framework for UK Aviation. The debate continues and has become highly polarised between supporters, wanting changes that will allow continued growth and minimise additional costs, and environmentalists arguing that plans to limit emissions are not sufficient. There are very few of us straddling the middle ground, understanding that emissions need to be capped but arguing that, rather than vilify the aviation industry, it should be encouraged to build on its entrepreneurial roots and start in earnest the transition to sustainable aviation.

Aviation is one of the fastest-growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions. These emissions, particularly carbon dioxide (CO2) but also other pollutants, are playing a part in damaging the atmosphere and causing changes to the climate. Concern is growing and evidence that the problems could be serious is starting to emerge, but society is not yet ready to take the action that will reconcile people’s addiction to flying with sound environmental policy. While climate change is seen as a problem that will affect another generation, some time in the future, politicians lack a compelling reason to risk unpopularity by changing policy and controlling the projected expansion of emissions from aviation. In an industry with very long investment horizons, this is holding back progress.

The development of aviation through the course of the 20th century was inspiring, from the Wright Brothers’ first tentative flight to the launch of the space age. Throughout this period the key developments often came about out of crisis such as the leap in capabilities resulting from the two world wars. The First Golden Age of aviation came after the First World War when records were set as adventurers competed to be first to fly across the major oceans and push the boundaries of the early rudimentary flying machines. The Second Golden Age came after the Second World in which the battle for supremacy in the skies lead to the development of the jet engine. There was also a glut of ex-military aircraft to launch airlines with tickets affordable to a much wider range of people.

The next leap forward, in this century, could well be in response to the climate crisis. Such an advance would require reform of the linchpin of aviation policy, the Convention on International Civil Aviation, agreed in Chicago in December 1944. This convention still rules international aviation today and holds the industry in an outdated policy framework in which aviation fuel for international flights is, in effect, free of tax. This not only boosts growth but also acts as a barrier to the development of aviation that is less reliant on fossil fuel. With fuel so cheap, it is not cost effective to make substantial investments in greener aviation.

At the centre of the debate about the future of aviation is the growth of low-cost aviation. The dilemma is that making flying accessible to ever more people also shifts aviation onto a trajectory of massive increase in overall emissions. It is becoming clear that the current mould of aviation must be broken but the situation is not seen as a crisis and policy-makers are slow to appreciate the degree of change required. There are measures under discussion ranging from improved aircraft efficiency and better air traffic control to operational efficiencies and the introduction of biofuel. These measures are improvements but lack real ambition.

Looking to the future, there will come a time when it is economically viable to replace conventional aircraft with a fleet of green air vehicles, thus launching the Third Golden Age of aviation. This can come about sooner rather than later through unleashing the entrepreneurs who can make the vision of sustainable aviation a reality. The concepts and capabilities are feasible, but without an appropriate policy framework the next generation of air vehicles are not commercially viable, remaining on the drawing board. There is a reluctance to admit, in the aviation industry, that it could be transformed, because the transition will bring uncertainty and is likely to be painful for the industry incumbents and their shareholders.

Once it becomes clear to the majority of people that the impact of climate change will be significant, with damaging consequences for society, politicians will be forced to move quickly beyond the painstaking climate debate taking place under the auspices of the United Nations. The circumstances will arise for bold action, including calling for a new convention on civil aviation that can deliver a policy framework fit for the 21st century. The transition will not be smooth, and may not be easy, requiring a break with the policy of the past. As world leaders continue to fail to agree effective controls on CO2 emissions, and direct evidence of climate change grows stronger, the debate will turn from talk about long-term targets to near-term urgent action. That will be when the future of 21st-century aviation will be decided; business would do well to think ahead and understand the implications.

Fly and Be Damned: What now for aviation and climate change? by Peter McManners is published by Zed Books,

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