(July 22): This summer, European vacationers are being brought down to earth. A campaign, marked by hashtags such as #stayontheground and #flightshame, is pressuring travelers to think twice about the carbon impact of their air travel. Even airlines are joining in the public shaming. KLM Royal Dutch Airlines is encouraging people to fly less, and Deutsche Lufthansa AG's CEO recently declared that cheap fares are "economically, ecologically and politically irresponsible." Whether connected or not, there’s been a surge in European train passenger traffic this summer.
None of this well-meaning effort will amount to much, however, unless the industry grapples with the environmental impact of its fastest-growing market: Asia.
Aviation industry estimates suggest that global passenger numbers will double by 2037, led primarily by new middle-class consumers in China, India and Southeast Asia. Sometime in the next decade, China will surpass the US as the world's biggest aviation market.
This growth has been driven partly by population size — China’s middle class alone includes at least 400 million members — and partly by strategy. Rather than waiting for these consumers to become rich enough to afford traditional airfares, Asian low-cost carriers sprung up to meet them where they were economically. In 2008, airlines in Southeast Asia flew 200 million seats. A decade later, they flew 530 million seats; during that time, low-cost carriers expanded their market share from 30% to nearly 50%. The region’s leading such airline, Malaysia-based AirAsia Group Bhd, uses the slogan, "Now Everyone Can Fly!." It’s on track to become Southeast Asia’s largest carrier — period — in 2019.
Neither the airline industry, passengers — many of whom are flying for the first time — nor local governments have any intention of slowing this growth. To the contrary, by 2035, India plans to build 100 new airports and China plans over 200 of its own. Meanwhile, developed countries including Singapore and South Korea are upgrading and expanding airports to prepare for the expected deluge of new passengers.
East Asia already has the world's fastest-growing tourist industry and planemakers are salivating at the potential for more growth. The Boeing Co predicts that Asia-Pacific will account for around 40% of the 44,000 commercial aircraft it expects to sell through 2038.
The environmental costs of this growth are very real. An individual flying roundtrip between New York and London generates the same level of emissions as a person heating their home for a year. That adds up: The airline industry emits nearly 1 billion tons of CO2 annually. If aviation were a country, it'd be a top 10 emitter, bigger than such notable polluters as Brazil, Canada, South Korea and the UK.
The few conscientious Europeans who choose not to fly will in all likelihood be vastly outnumbered by the Asians who do, even if the latter are often flying shorter distances within the region. While environmental consciousness is growing across Asia, sustainable consumption — and especially the notion that consumers should opt out or pay more for the benefits of a consumer economy — remains an idea largely embraced by the already affluent.
That means airlines and local governments are going to have to find other ways to mitigate the impact of air travel in Asia. There are no easy solutions, of course. But governments can and should take tangible steps now. For instance, China and India could join the over 70 states participating in the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation, or CORSIA, a market-based program in which airlines buy "offsets" for their emissions. Its idealistic goal is to make aviation carbon-neutral by 2020.
Greater government support for biofuels and other sustainable fuels, especially by flag carriers and state-supported airlines, would reduce emissions and create economies of scale that would make it more affordable for other airlines to adopt such cleaner-burning fuels. Airlines could work together to establish and maintain "green" flight routes that reduce fuel use and climate impacts.
Finally, countries with an interest in developing plane manufacturing sectors could increase investments in electric and hybrid propulsion. Governments won’t get far if they try to tell eager new consumers they can’t fly. The key is to make all those trips a lot less damaging than they currently are.