Budget Carriers Blamed for Spike in Airliner GHGs


By Jonny Wakefield

August 14, 2014

New research suggests the environment is bearing the costs of increasingly cheap airfare. According to a studyout of the University of Southampton in the U.K., growth in civil air traffic is becoming "an increasingly significant contributor to anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions.”

Their research suggests that an increase in demand for air travel, spurred on by the rise of low cost carriers, is erasing any gains the industry made in reducing carbon emissions. 

Discount airfare and a projected doubling of the number of planes in the air by 2031 threatens to roll back many of those gains. The study's authors found that between 1979 and 2012, domestic ticket prices dropped 1.3 per cent annually. International fares, on the other hand, fell half a percentage point per year between 1990 and 2012. 

While prices have dropped, fleet upgrades have led to improved efficiency. According to the lead author, Matt Grote, a professor of engineering, limited access to air travel had been keeping emissions in check. But cheap tickets and an uptick in usage have the potential to see emissions from air travel explode.

To actively reduce demand for air travel and keep emissions in check, ticket prices would need to start increasing, along with continued efforts to reduce emissions from air fleets.

"If all mitigation measures are successfully implemented, it is still likely that traffic growth rates will continue to out pace emissions reduction rates," the report's authors write. 

Short of a market solution, the study calls for a global regulator "with teeth" to enforce emissions targets.  So far, Canada's steps toward reining in the airline industry's fuel consumption have been voluntary. 

In June 2012, the federal government released an action plan to "reduce greenhouse gases from aviation." It calls for airlines to improve fuel efficiency by two per cent per year between 2021 and 2050. 

However, the report notes that, "it does not contain legal obligations of any kind or impose unreasonable expectations on any party, or intend to negatively impact any air carrier's ability to do business in Canada."