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Revealed: The real cost of air travel

It might be cheap, but it's going to cost the earth. The cut-price airline ticket is fuelling a boom that will make countering global warming impossible.

The tens of thousands of Britons jetting off on cheap flights this weekend have been given graphic reminders by leading green groups that the huge surge in mass air travel is becoming one of the biggest causes of climate change.

Unless the boom in cheap flights is halted, say Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, Britain and other countries will simply not be able to meet targets for cutting back on the emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) that are causing the atmosphere to warm, with potentially disastrous consequences. In spelling out what is for most people - and for many politicians - a very uncomfortable truth, they are echoing the warnings of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution and the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee.

The scientists of the former and the MPs of the latter have set out in detail how the soaring growth in CO2 emissions from aircraft that the cheap flights bonanza is promoting will do terrible damage to the atmosphere and make a nonsense of global warming targets, such as Britain's stated aim of cutting CO2 emissions by 60 per cent by 2050.

British emissions of C02 from aircraft, expressed in millions of tons of carbon, shot up from 4.6 million tons in 1990 to 8.8 million tons in 2000. But based on predicted air passenger transport growth figures - from 180 million passengers per year today to 476 million passengers per year by 2030 - they are expected to rise to 17.7 million tons in 2030.

Aircraft emissions that go directly into the stratosphere have more than twice the global warming effect of emissions from cars and power stations at ground level and, based on the Government's own calculations, the effect of the 2030 emissions will be equivalent to 44.3 million tons of carbon - 45 per cent of Britain's expected emissions total at that date.

That growth alone, the environmental audit committee says, will make Britain's 60 per cent CO2 reduction target "meaningless and unachievable". The clash of interests cannot be ducked any more, say the green groups. "The convenience we enjoy in covering huge distances in a short time is one of the fast-growing threats to life on earth," said Tony Juniper, the executive director of Friends of the Earth.

"Aviation is an increasing source of climate-changing pollution and we must take steps to curb it now. Planes pump out eight times more carbon dioxide per passenger mile than a train. A return flight to Australia will release as much carbon dioxide as all the heating, light and cooking for a house for a year."

Blake Lee-Harwood, campaigns director for Greenpeace, said: "The simple fact is the boom in cheap air travel cannot be reconciled with the survival of those things we most value about the planet, and will ultimately kill millions of people.

"The only way to stop the problem is to reduce our flying. We just have to accept public transport and highly efficient cars are the only kinds of routine transport we can sensibly use, and air travel is just for special occasions. We may not like that hard truth but we don't have a choice." The green groups feel the only solution is to cut back on demand by forcing prices up, especially as commercial aviation has long benefited from a very easy tax regime. In other words, people will have to be "priced off planes" and the cheap flights bonanza will have to end.

Bizarrely, the Government is facing in two directions at once. In the 2003 energy White Paper, it committed itself to tackling climate change and announced its 60 per cent CO2 target. But in the aviation White Paper later that year, it promised to facilitate the expected mass increase in air traffic, if necessary by providing several new runways to cope with increased demand

There is no sign of the two positions being reconciled by Tony Blair. Yesterday, it appeared the leaders of the G8 group of nations, set to put climate change at the top of the agenda at this summer's G8 meeting in Scotland which Tony Blair will chair, are also flunking the issue. A leaked draft of a climate change communiqué showed they were promising more research into the effects of aircraft emissions, but shying away from any commitment to raise ticket prices.

One of the leading advocates of an emissions trading scheme for airlines is among a group of UK business leaders who wrote to Tony Blair yesterday calling for a "step change" in efforts to tackle climate change. Mike Clasper, the chief executive of BAA, has been the aviation industry's most outspoken supporter of the idea of forcing airlines to pay for excessive carbon emissions, even though it could be financially damaging to many of his customers. Mr Clasper and 12 other senior businessmen say companies are deterred from investing in low carbon technologies because of the lack of long-term government policies and concern that their international competitiveness will be harmed.

Other signatories to the letter include the chairman of HSBC bank, Sir John Bond, the chairman of the John Lewis Partnership, Sir Stuart Hampson and the chief executive of Scottish Power, Ian Russell.

The facts about flying

* Air travel produces 19 times the greenhouse gas emissions of trains; and 190 times that of a ship.

* Aviation could contribute 15 per cent of greenhouse gases each year if unchecked.

* Greenhouse gas emissions caused by UK air travel have doubled in the past 13 years, from 20.1m tons in 1990 to 39.5m tons in 2004.

* During the same period emissions from UK cars rose by 8m tons, to 67.8m tons.

* One return flight to Florida produces the equivalent CO2 of a year's average motoring.

* Emissions at altitude have 2.7 times the environmental impact of those on the ground.

* Air travel is growing at UK airports at an average of 4.25 per cent. In 1970, 32 million flew from UK airports; in 2002, 189 million. By 2030 some 500 million passengers may pass through UK airports.

* Cargo transportation is growing by 7 per cent a year. In 1970, 580,000 tons of freight were moved by plane; in 2002, 2.2 million tons. It is forecast to reach 5 million tons in 2010.

* 50 per cent of the UK population flew at least once in 2001.

* Flying 1kg of asparagus from California to the UK uses 900 times more energy than the home-grown equivalent.

Editorial Notes: Related articles: Aviation is fastest-growing source of C02 emissions by Tony Juniper (executive director of Friends of the Earth) in The Independent. Recovery boosts US jet fuel demand in Reuters (via Airwise News). -BA

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