The Big Picture: Climate Change and the Economics of Aviation

Aviation worldwide currently accounts for 3% of the total human-made contribution to climate change. This may not sound a lot but it is about as much as the total emissions of Canada and the UK put together. And the figure doesn’t tell the full story. Only a very minority of people are causing these emissions as just 2-3% of the global population currently participate in international air travel on an annual basis.1 And emissions from UK aviation have increased 120% since 19902, much faster than emissions from other forms of transport. The UK is committed to cutting its greenhouse gas emissions by 80% (from 1990 levels) by 2050. If we are to achieve that, and we allow aviation to continue to grow unchecked, calculations suggest that the sector could take up the entire UK carbon allowance by 20503 - clearly a problematic proposal!

LCA runs a lot of short-haul flights to Europe, including to Scotland – most of which could quite easily be replaced by rail, a mode of transport much better for the environment. In 2009, LCA introduced its first transatlantic flights: a twice-daily service to New York, using BA jets with just 32 seats. Friends of the Earth’s Richard Dyer warned, ‘the luxurious and spacious layout on these planes will mean each passenger is responsible for around three times the emissions from regular flights.’4

LCA also does a nice trade in corporate jet flights, and its Master Plan document details plans to almost triple the number of corporate jets movements at the airport over the next 20 years, from 10,000 (2005) to 28,000 (2030).5 There is little information about the impacts of these jets when compared to a normal passenger flight, but Fred Pearce has done some rough calculations that suggest emissions might be ten times as much over one hour-long flight (say one from London to Paris.)6 All of this suggests that flights from City Airport are punching above their weight in terms of climate change-causing emissions.

Since almost all of LCA’s routes are within the UK or Europe – and a high number of those are to France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany – many of these are journeys that could potentially be transferred to rail. Given the speed and convenience of high speed rail services, the possibilities for working on the train itself, stations in the heart of the cities they serve, not to mention the environmental arguments against aviation, it is hard to see how short-haul domestic and European flights will continue to be an attractive option in the coming decades.

Moreover, some reports suggest that this shift is already occurring, kick-started by the recession hitting business bottom-lines and encouraging CEOs to look at cost-saving measures – like cutting down on business travel. Research by WWF has found that, ‘the latest technologies, such as videoconferencing, are creating a culture change in working practices.  There was also evidence that these are long-term changes and companies do not want to return to high levels of flying.’7 Other experts also argue that the increasing price of oil will limit aviation expansion over the next few decades. 8

Whether it’s down to environmental arguments, cost-saving in the recession changing business behaviour long-term, or peak oil and spiralling fuel costs, many argue that aviation cannot continue to grow at its current rate. Such arguments clearly make the validity and viability of airport expansion questionable.



1 Gössling and Upham, Climate Change and Aviation (Earthscan, 2009): p. 5

3 From WWF ‘Travelling Light’ report:

4 businessGreen website: ‘Green groups slam BA over new business class-only flights’, 29 Sep 2009 (accessed 12.02.12):

6 The Guardian online, ‘Green private jets? Don’t make me laugh’, 29th Oct. 2009 (accessed 12.01.12):

8 Ibid, p. 2