China is flying high, but is this love of flying sustainable?

Vmenkov, Wikimedia Commons

EDINBURGH, February 10, 2014—A near riot broke out in North East China recently, caused by the threat of flight cancellations and airport closure by snow. Passengers were returning to work from New Year celebrations, many making the long trek back to the nation’s major cities. However, the riot was also a sign of the times; China’s aviation industry is booming and flying is increasingly a necessary choice by its citizens, but at what expense to the global environment?

Civil aviation is celebrating its centenary this year–100 years of air travel has revolutionized our economies and our worldview. There can be little doubt that air travel is here to stay and likely to continue to grow at a fast pace for years to come. Passenger growth may be slowing in the US and Europe, but it is being off-set by high growth in other continents, particularly in China and the rest of Asia.

China has become one of the world’s leading countries when it comes to air travel growth. Last year the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) claimed 354 million passengers had taken to its skies. According to CAAC, in 2012 air traffic to and from and within China grew by over 10 percent. Of that, domestic travel accounted for some 78 percent of the total. Chinese domestic air travel is expected to grow by 6.8 precent year on year and international travel by an even higher percentage.

Given such huge growth, it is unsurprising that Beijing is expected to become the world’s busiest airport. China’s love of aviation is also resulting in the construction of new airports with tens of new regional airports are scheduled for construction in the next couple of years, adding to the near 200 already in existence. Whether all of these airports, largely under the control of local authorities, are built in the end remains to be seen, but there can be little doubt over China’s ambition to create a complete network of regional airports, served by a growing low cost airline sector.

Air travel has been a source of pollution over the past century, but as the BRIC countries and other developing nations expand both their economies and consumer purchasing power, so the levels of air travel and associated pollution are rising. Global demand for air travel rose by over five percent in 2013, with much of that growth coming from Asia and the Middle East. Nevertheless, the rates for Latin America and Africa were 6.3 percent and 5.2 percent respectively, far outstripping growth in the more mature US and European markets. Africa in particular, with its relatively poor infrastructure and growing economy, is a likely source of growing air travel for many years to come.

According to Friends of the Earth, the world’s 16,000 commercial jet aircraft generate more than 600 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2), the world’s major greenhouse gas, per year. That, they claim, accounts for 3.5 percent of global warming from human activity. Given that countries like China are unlikely to curb their growing aviation market, is enough being done quickly enough to reduce the emissions from rising global air traffic?

Certainly high-speed rail must form part of the solution to the growth in domestic flights. Yet such projects are not without their problems. One need only look to the travails of the UK Government in securing the relatively short high-speed rail link from London to Birmingham, or at the controversy surrounding the environmental impact of the Lyon-Turin line to see that high speed rail has its detractors.

High-speed rail is also still an anathema in the likes of South America and Africa. Asia is a different matter–part of the huge growth in Chinese air travel may be off-set by the growth of its high speed rail network. China has recently announced it will spend £60bn this year in an effort to almost double the size of its high-speed rail network, which is already one of the largest networks in the world. Nor does the Chinese Government view its high speed trains stopping at the border, with ambitious plans to extend the network into nearby Laos and beyond into South East Asia.

Of course, improvements to aeronautical engineering have brought down the impact of plane travel and the industry is mindful of the need to continue to drive down emissions. Last October at a meeting of the International Civil Aviation Organisation, they agreed to report back in 2016 with a proposal for a global market based measure (MBM) scheme capable of being implemented by 2020. ICAO Council President Roberto Kobeh González claimed “This MBM agreement is an historic milestone for air transport and for the role of multilateralism in addressing global climate challenges.” However, the industry has been criticized by environmentalists for parking the issue while global emissions continue to rise.

Part of the answer may lie with the aircraft manufacturers. Airbus, for example, has recently issued its vision of aviation over the next 40 years–looking ahead to what aviation may look like by 2050. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they envision more flights, but with fewer emissions.

Airplane manufacturers are committed to more efficient fuel use. This includes research and development into alternative fuels and better use of energy on-board, such as through solar power and heat collection. By flying at higher altitudes, greater efficiencies may also be possible. Such technological developments will certainly come through, but for now these are largely piece-meal measures at the moment and rely on the conversion of aging aircraft fleets to modern, high performance jets.

Whatever the outcome of global research and targets on aviation CO2 emissions, they are likely to continue to rise in the near future as the developing world increasingly expands its network of flights. It will require global solutions. China, which is at the center of aviation growth at the moment, may yet start to turn away from aircraft as its high-speed rail network is rolled out. The future is certainly fast, but will it be sustainable?

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