European Airlines Brawl Over Carbon Emissions


July 19th, 2019 by Steve Hanley 

Let’s face it. Flying is a dreadful idea if the objective is to lower total global carbon emissions. While the amount of CO2 emitted per passenger per mile may be modest, with more than 37 million commercial flights each year, a lot of carbon gets injected high in the atmosphere, where it stays for an extended period of time. Total emissions from air travel are close to 900 million tons a year, about 12% of all transportation emissions worldwide.

Reactionaries like to snicker up their sleeves about provisions of the Green New Deal that call for reductions in carbon emissions from air travel. “They’re coming for your airplanes!” they scream, as if doing nothing is an intelligent way to deal with the burgeoning climate crisis.

A fight has broken out in Europe in the past few days about those emissions. It started when Carsten Spohr, CEO of Lufthansa, told a Swiss newspaper that discount airlines like Ryanair, which offer fares as low as €10, create a demand for air travel that raises pollution and makes the industry an easy target for climate advocates. Such fares are “economically, ecologically and politically irresponsible,” Spohr said.

Kenny Jacobs, head of marketing for Ryanair, was quick to offer a retort. He gleefully pointed out that Lufthansa is one of the biggest polluters in the European market. It emits about 92 grams per passenger per kilometer. Ryanair has a far more enviable record at 66.8 grams per passenger per kilometer. Another European low fare carrier, Wizz Air, leads the competition with a figure below 60 g/km.

Ryanair immediately e-mailed 15 million potential customers in Germany and central Europe — Lufthansa’s largest market — touting his company’s low fares and low emissions. “I give our thanks to Lufthansa for making our marketing costs less,” Jacobs says. “We’re very happy with the comparison.”

The airline industry is taking more heat recently as the transportation and utility sectors are beginning to reduce their carbon emissions. A round trip flight from London to New York is responsible for the same amount of emissions as heating a typical home home for a year. Bloomberg says aviation will become the most polluting industry within three decades as other industries continue to lower the amount of carbon dioxide their activities create.

The European Aviation Safety Agency announced in June it will grade jets by emissions to help people choose between airlines. France has recently unveiled a flight tax it says is partly a response to the sector’s role in global warming.

The low cost carriers typically operate narrower 2 engine airplanes that are more efficient than larger four engine aircraft Lufthansa and other long distance airlines rely on. In total, Lufthansa emitted 32.3 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2018. The total for Ryanair was a mere 10 million tons.

The fight is relevant at a time when the airline industry is experiencing rising demand each year. A carbon fee would help lower demand, but would mean a constraint on the traditional airline business model, something reactionaries rail against. It would also make biofuels more competitive with conventional jet fuel and help encourage development of non-polluting electric aircraft.

The squabble is a precursor of many more struggles that will happen as the business community tries to address the challenges of a warming planet due to the overuse of fossil fuels. Those struggles may require people to choose between convenience and a sustainable environment.

About the Author

Steve Hanley Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Rhode Island and anywhere else the Singularity may lead him. His motto is, “Life is not measured by how many breaths we take but by the number of moments that take our breath away!” You can follow him on Google + and on Twitter.

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