Just weeks before the Copenhagen summit on climate change, the aviation industry got the headline it wanted – “Airlines Vow To Halve Emissions By 2050”.
But, as ever with the industry, all is not what it seems. The claims are smoke and mirrors.
Once you cut through the corporate “greenwash”, it becomes clear that the aviation industry is not planning to cut emissions at all.
Rather, it proposes to use carbon trading and carbon off-setting to pay other people and other industries to cut their emissions so it can continue to grow and pollute.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, emissions from the aviation industry will rise from 610 million tonnes in 2005 to 2.4 billion tonnes in 2050.
Aviation will remain the fastest-growing source of carbon dioxide emissions.
In Britain it threatens to wipe out the carbon savings made from all other industries.
The aviation industry is talking up new, “greener” planes, including those powered in part by biofuels.
Technology could indeed deliver small improvements but projected growth levels in the number of flights would wipe these out.
Biofuels are also problematic. They are unproven as a large-scale replacement for kerosene.
More fundamentally though, the current generation of biofuels comes from crops grown on land that could otherwise be used for food in poor countries.
The proposals put forward by British Airways boss Willie Walsh, apparently on behalf of the whole industry, are a desperate attempt by the companies to avoid paying their fair share of taxation.
Aviation fuel is tax-free and the industry is largely exempt from VAT.
It comes nowhere near paying for the emissions, noise and social disruption it causes.
The tax-breaks it enjoys in Britain exceed the taxes it pays by well over £10 billion a year.
There are strong reasons – based on the environment, issues of fairness and the economy – for the tax-breaks to be removed.
Unless higher prices curb growth, emissions will continue to soar.
The current system of tax subsidies is deeply inequitable and regressive.
It benefits those who fly the most – the richest people in the richest part of the world. And it works against those who fly least – the poorest in the poorest part of the world.
The economic case for subsidies is also wholly flawed.
The aviation industry is hurting the British economy because Britons spend £19 billion more abroad than visitors spend in this country.
This dwarfs any economic benefits from aviation.
There was no deficit before the advent of budget, subsidised flights.
The industry and its paid lobbyists make much of the fact that cheap flights enable “hard-working British families” to holiday in the sun.
In reality, the end of budget flights will not stop working people from taking holidays abroad.
It is just a neat headline from a corporate body desperate to preserve its privileged tax position.
In a world threatened by runaway climate change and peak oil a sane aviation industry would start planning for decline. But no corporate body can face that.
Only campaigners’ struggles against the environmental and social impacts of aviation, together with a push from workers for a just transition, a shift to green production with no job losses, can bring sanity.
The aviation industry is under pressure like never before.
A vibrant coalition of environmentalists, direct action activists and local campaign groups has pushed aviation to the top of the political agenda.
Within a year, the coalition may well have claimed its biggest scalp – the third runway at Heathrow Airport.
This could happen if the Tories, having read the mood of the aviation debate more accurately than New Labour, scrap plans for Heathrow expansion.
Over the last year the coalition of campaigners has made important links with workers in industry fighting for just transition.
Green and socialist activists increasingly understand that the challenge to the aviation industry must embrace green jobs in new industries, in addition to the more traditional concerns of noise and emissions.
This is crucial if the case for scaling down aviation is to be convincingly made.
If the finance was made available for a million green jobs in sustainable industries, then we would be taking the first steps to creating an alternative vision to a society so dominated by dirty industries determined to grow.
The Copenhagen summit will achieve nothing like that.
It may encourage a growing awareness of climate change. It might edge things forward on certain fronts.
But without economics, employment and global justice sharing the stage with climate change, it won’t challenge the fundamentals.
We can guarantee, though, that it will result in a few more choice headlines for the aviation industry.
John Stewart is the chair of Airportwatch. For more information go to » airportwatch.org.uk