Airlines might not be the global warming villains we think

Like agriculture, aviation has become a convenient global-warming whipping boy

Ryanair’s third quarter results made much of its green credentials. They repeated the airline’s stance that its emissions, at 66 grams of carbon dioxide for every km each passenger travels, are low by industry standards, its commitment to eliminate plastic within five years and cut noise by up to 40 per cent.

Along with all airlines, Ryanair knows that a reckoning is coming. The European Union plans to hit aircraft fuel with a 33 cent a litre carbon tax and scrap a VAT exemption for air travel tickets. Both measures may take 10 years, but could add 30 per cent to fares and stall growth for a period.

Ryanair and its rivals, including Aer Lingus and British Airways owner International Consolidated Airlines' Group (IAG), are lobbying furiously against extra environmental taxes. Simultaneously, they are taking very public steps to curb emissions, so they will be seen to do their bit for the planet.

That is unlikely to dissuade the EU. If business and consumers must pay carbon and other environmental taxes, why should Brussels let airlines off the hook?

This seems fair. However, airlines generally – not just Ryanair – are getting a lot of stick for their emissions. More possibly than they deserve. Air travel produces 2 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gases. If the industry grows as expected while doing nothing about emissions, this will hit 2.5 per cent in coming years.

Global tech

So it is not quite the culprit the debate would have you believe. Like agriculture, aviation has become a global warming whipping boy. Global tech, with its endless need for energy-guzzling data centres, coal-burning power plants, our needlessly gridlocked traffic, all add to the carbon load, but seem to get less attention.

It is only right that governments – rather than airlines – ensure that aviation shoulders its fair share of the climate change burden. However, they should allocate that share on the basis of actual facts, not on the grounds that one industry or another is this week’s global-warming villain.