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Last Updated: Monday, 20 June 2005, 12:48 GMT 13:48 UK
Airlines sport their green colours

By Tom Symonds
BBC transport correspondent

Every day at Britain's airports, hundreds of aircraft take off for destinations across Europe. Each churns out tonnes of carbon dioxide, a by-product of the jet engine and a likely cause of global warming.

A plane taking off
A flight across Europe can produce 27 tonnes of CO2

Take just one flight. Ryanair's 800-mile (1,300km) flight from Stansted to Rome, using a Boeing 737, will produce 27 tonnes of CO2 as it goes.

Much of it will hang around in the atmosphere, contributing to the greenhouse effect.

The greenhouse gases generated by air travel are tiny compared with many other environmentally damaging human activities.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates aviation contributes just 3% to total global emissions of CO2, compared with the 25% pumped out by power stations.

But there are predictions that this will rise to 15% because aviation is one of the few sources of greenhouse gases that are growing.

Our love of the high life has an environmental cost, and it's a big problem, that needs to be solved

Air travel has been predicted by the government to triple in the next 30 years.

Airports are being expanded to cope with the extra demand, with extra runways planned at Stansted and Heathrow.

Now, enter the combined weight of the UK's aviation industry - with a strategy designed to show that airlines, airports and aircraft manufacturers are taking responsibility for what they admit are the "significant, detrimental environmental impacts" of our love of flying.

Economic contribution

The target is to make planes 50% more fuel efficient by 2020, compared with aircraft in our skies now.

That should reduce CO2 emissions by half. But can it be done - and what impact will it have on global warming?

For evidence that it is possible, the industry points out that modern aircraft are 70% more fuel-efficient than they were in the '60s.

Planes can be built much bigger. Airbus says its giant new A380 burns 13% less fuel than the ageing Boeing 747.

A380s are likely to be common at airports in 15 years' time.

Making the air traffic control system more efficient may help, too. Time wasted, on the ground or in the air, is paid for in aviation fuel.

But environmentalists doubt that building better planes with better engines can achieve the 50% target.

Jeff Gazzard, from the Aviation Environment Federation, said the strategy was "hopelessly optimistic, and over-reliant on technology. Real back-of-the-fag-packet stuff".

An aircraft on the airport tarmac
Do we need to put the brakes on cheap flights?
He believes a 25% reduction is possible, but says that will not be enough. If the government's estimates are to be believed, in the 15-year timescale of this strategy the number of flights will increase by 150%.

The aviation industry is also committed to a system of "emissions trading" which would allow airlines to buy the right to produce greenhouse gases from other industries that are producing less - such as power stations.

This "virtual pollution market", it is argued, would put a price on environmental damage, and encourage greener air travel.

But environmentalists believe none of these solutions will tackle the real problem: our growing desire to get on a plane and fly, whether on a business trip across the globe, or a cheap trip to a hot new holiday destination in Europe.

The only solution, they say, is to make flying more expensive, to persuade us to fly less.

The Aviation Environment Federation wants every passenger to pay at least 34 more for every 700 miles (1,100km) they fly.

The aviation industry hits back with figures showing air travel contributes 14bn a year to the British economy. And the debate continues.

One thing everyone's agreed on is that our love of the high life has an environmental cost, and it is a big problem that needs to be solved.

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