FEATURE - Cheap air travel adding to global warming woes
Author: Sujata Rao
"It takes just 45 minutes - I wouldn't have made the trip if they hadn't started this new flight," Cole said.
But while Cole and millions of fellow Britons are thrilled with the cut-price fares from budget carriers, environmentalists are not so happy. They say cheap tickets encourage people to fly instead of using more eco-friendly rail transport.
Aviation is the world's fastest growing man-made source of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere - seen by many as a major contributor to global warming. Some 16,000 commercial aircraft pump out 600 million tonnes of carbon dioxide every year.
Never has the world seemed smaller or air fares lower.
And never has it been more polluted.
A study by the eco-group Friends of the Earth found that one return London-Miami flight generates as much carbon dioxide as the average British motorist produces in a year. Jet fuel use is set to triple in the next half century.
"Some air fares have fallen so low, there may be some artificial demand being created," said Nic Ferriday of the green lobby Aviation Environment Federation (AEF). "People are flying more and more...But how much of this is really necessary?"
This summer, 16 million Britons will jet off on holidays abroad - an increase of 10 percent over the past year. But while air fares have plummeted over the past 50 years relative to incomes, the price is paid elsewhere.
Experts say flying is more damaging than driving, because carbon dioxide, water vapour, and nitrogen oxide spewed high in the air enter the ozone layer straightaway. When emitted at ground level most of the last two elements evaporates.
NEED FOR JET FUEL TAX
To slow the rise in air travel, environmentalists recommend a levy on jet fuel.
A strong reason why airlines can offer extremely cheap flights is that aviation fuel, unlike motor fuels, is tax-free on international flights. This is because of a 1944 agreement to promote the then fledgling aviation industry.
It also escaped being included in the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gases because of difficulties in allocating responsibility between countries for the aircraft emissions.
"By not taxing jet fuel, governments are effectively subsidising pollution," Ferriday said. "The growth in flying would not be so fast if you slapped a tax on the fuel."
Momentum is now building in favour of a tax.
With most aviation concentrated in Europe and the United States, the lack of a jet fuel tax is effectively subsidising travel - and pollution - by the planet's wealthiest people, proponents say.
"It's ludicrous that one of the most luxurious ways of travelling is not taxed," Domingo Jimenez-Beltran, head of the European Union's Environment Agency, said recently.
Not surprisingly, the aviation lobby opposes a levy, saying it will raise fares without cutting emissions. Current EU thinking would result in a tax adding up to $15 to a ticket's price within Europe, which will hit budget carriers most.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) which groups most of the world's airlines, says the sector is already addressing the issue through better fuel efficiency, which it says has increased by 17 percent in the past decade.
"A tax is a politically simple solution which will just exclude some segments of society from air travel," said Keith Carter, IATA's assistant director for fuel services.
Aviation groups suggest market mechanisms such as emissions trading. This is a tool to help companies meet emissions reduction targets under the Kyoto Protocol whereby energy efficient firms which cut emissions get allowances which they can sell.
"A fuel tax doesn't really address the greenhouse gas issue while emissions trading is the most direct and cost effective way of cutting emissions," said a spokesman for Freedom to Fly, a coalition of British airports, airlines and travel agencies.
"If you work to stop aviation growth, you are going against the grain of population growth and th