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Air travel growth suggests ‘sustainable’ and ‘development’ are not compatible

(EurActiv, 4 Oct 2019) Air travel is not the only threat to life on earth, but it is a useful barometer of runaway economic growth and development that, if allowed to continue unmitigated, will irreparably harm the planet, writes Jonathan Gornall.

Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK. Gornall contributed this op-ed for the Syndication Bureau, an opinion and analysis article syndication service that focuses exclusively on the Middle East.

Last month, the European aerospace company, Airbus, predicted that over the next 20 years the number of commercial aircraft in operation around the world would double. Executives brushed off fears about the impact on climate change by insisting that the company was “a champion of bringing global emissions down.”

Since 1990, technological advances have indeed cut aircraft fuel consumption per passenger kilometer by half. But at the same time the number of passenger flights quadrupled, to 4.2 billion a year, utterly nullifying any gains in efficiency. By 2037 there will be more than 8 billion flights a year. The day after the Airbus announcement, a study by the International Council on Clean Transportation revealed that between 2013 and 2018 the volume of carbon dioxide emitted by airlines increased 32%. The figure is 70% worse than predicted by the UN and equivalent to firing up 50 new coal-burning power plants.

It was bad enough that Airbus presented a misleading picture of the aviation industry’s inability to match its exponential expansion with parallel improvements in fuel efficiency. But then Bob Lange, a senior vice-president at the company, had the audacity to present the disastrous projected explosion of air travel as a noble exercise in human rights. The growth, he said, was “largely coming from people who haven’t accessed air travel in the past [and] in the notion of what we’re going to do to protect our planet there has to be a notion of equity.”

The greatest demand for air travel will come from the rising middle classes in the developing world. Indeed, said Lange, even if US consumers halved their travel (which of course they won’t) “it’s not going to make a dent in [the numbers of] people travelling for the first time.”

So, to paraphrase the message from Airbus to the upwardly mobile of the developing world: “We in the developed world have driven the planet to the brink. Now it’s only fair that you should have the chance to emulate our profligacy and tip it over the edge.”

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EurActiv, 4 Oct 2019: Air travel growth suggests ‘sustainable’ and ‘development’ are not compatible