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Turning aviation green requires the stick of emission charges

By 2026, aviation will be paying the same substantial price for its carbon emissions as industry rather than enjoying its current free pass

Cop28 has seen the world inch slightly closer to tackling the problem of climate change, albeit very late in the day for our rapidly warming planet. Reducing reliance on fossil fuels must be a key part of the climate journey, which is a big political as well as a technical challenge.

While progress is being made on reducing fossil fuel use for road transport and to heat our homes, aviation remains the biggest difficulty from a technological, financial and administrative perspective. At the current pace, the aviation sector may still be substantially dependent on fossil fuels in 2050.

One solution is to just stop flying. However, as incomes rise, people spend more of their money on travel and, in particular, on air travel. Hopefully, we will see rising prosperity around the globe, and the income gap between countries narrow in future years. However, this means demand for flights will grow rapidly, rather than be curtailed.

Most of the inward and outward surge in traffic through Dublin Airport over the coming week will involve family members meeting up for Christmas. With one fifth of our population born outside Ireland and well over 10 per cent of the Irish-born population living abroad, travel for family reunions is hugely important. For most international journeys, going by boat is far too slow to be a viable alternative.


European regulation will help drive change over the coming years by requiring an increasing share of aviation fuel to be produced sustainably

So any attempt to ration access to air travel is likely to prove hugely unpopular, especially where distance rules out any other form of transport. So policymakers must find workable alternatives to green the aviation sector and replace fossil fuels, rather than artificially trying to curb air travel.

This requires global action. If some countries or regions use green air fuels but others don’t, there is the risk that countries continuing to fly using fossil fuels will grow their share of the world aviation market.

At an EU level, the approach being taken is to bring aviation within the EU Emissions Trading Scheme. This means that, by 2026, aviation will be paying the same substantial price for its carbon emissions as the industrial sector, rather than its current free pass.

The initial effect of this policy will be that airlines will pass the cost on to travellers as higher prices, providing some incentive for us all to economise on air travel. However, much more important in the long run is that charging for aviation’s carbon emissions will drive the technological innovation in the aircraft industry to develop viable carbon-neutral air travel.

We have seen in the car industry that manufacturers are switching from traditional vehicles to electric cars. It isn’t because carmakers are tree-huggers who care about the environment. Rather, as petrol and diesel become progressively more expensive, given taxes on emissions, any companies that stick with fossil fuel cars would eventually go out of business as their more nimble competitors go electric.

The use of taxation, and the threat that it will rise further, has accelerated innovation in the sector. The rapid success of new entrant Tesla shocked traditional companies into action. The consequence is that most new cars sold worldwide after 2030 will be electric vehicles.

One of the reasons aviation is 20 years behind the motoring sector in switching to making green-fuelled planes is the lack of competition and, until now, exemption from taxation.

Worldwide, there are only two significant manufacturers of regular passenger planes. With each going slow on developing green alternatives, they felt reasonably secure. Although China is attempting to enter the civil aviation market, it will be at least a decade before it might be a serious competitor.

However, if either of Boeing or Airbus takes the lead in becoming a “green” plane manufacturer, the other company would need to follow suit or lose market share.

The technology for green planes will probably be different from battery-operated cars, as batteries are very heavy. It’s more likely to involve a switch away from kerosene, a fossil fuel, to hydrogen or to artificial fuels produced using green electricity.

European regulation will help drive change over the coming years by requiring an increasing share of aviation fuel to be produced sustainably.

On its own, the EU Emissions Trading Scheme might not be enough to impose virtue on the worldwide aviation sector, even though Europe accounts for a substantial share of aviation’s greenhouse gas emissions. But the lure of the EU plane market will help drive technological innovation worldwide.

Unfortunately green air travel will probably be 10 to 20 years late in eliminating greenhouse gas emissions. Still, that is better than nothing in fighting climate change.