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The future of air travel and tourism

John Coulter

The author recently sent the following to Sally Neighbour of the Four Corners program.

I looked forward to the ABC 4 Corners program on 29 June about the future of air transport and the associated tourism hoping it would take a comprehensive look at the mid to longer-term future of these industries, that it would recognise that – whatever the post pandemic new normal – it would need to be very different from the normal we have just left.

However, I was disappointed and ask that the following facts be considered:

The International Civil Aviation Organisation says that civil aviation accounts for about 2.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. The same authority predicts that this will increase between 3 and 7 times by 2050 compared with 2005 levels. One study suggests that by 2050 aviation could consume one quarter of the total global emissions budget. It is true that the fuel efficiency of large international passenger planes has improved in recent years but the improvements have been very modest and have been more than offset by the increased numbers of passengers. It is also true that there is no technology known at present that could fly large international aircraft around our planet that did not use fossil fuel. Given that we should be seeking zero emissions by 2050, if a replacement was available it would be leaving the drawing boards now. Given also that even zero emissions output by 2050 will leave a very long term CO2 atmospheric legacy for decades to hundreds of years into the future, one must draw the conclusion that there is no future whatsoever in long distance tourist based aviation.

There is no foreseeable future in air travel and with it international tourism based on air travel in a greenhouse constrained world. Even taking where we should be on the scale of global emissions today and dividing those emissions equitable across the world, an Australian taking a trip to Europe and back would use his or her allowable emissions for a whole year. This raises questions of equity; do we have a right to continue exceeding our emission quota to the detriment of others?

The Australian government has a poor record when it comes to addressing the urgency of climate change. Both parties have concentrated on electricity which is the easier part to tackle. Transport accounts for about a third of emissions and little attempt has been made to bring transport’s emissions down even though, unlike air transport. there are solutions for land transport readily at hand. There are alternative industries that fit within the climate challenged world and equitable distribution of work and income; moderately fast interstate electric rail, the electricity being generated from renewable sources together with a major shift to inner-city electric public transport together with a shift from fossil fuel powered cars to electric. Australia is in an ideal position to build lithium batteries with a large slice of government equity in their manufacture. This possibility is now crystal clear. Any impediment to this course is political, not financial, as has been made clear by the response to Covid-19.

  1. The pre-pandemic decisions not to raise various social welfare supports were entirely political. Our Federal Government can spend money into the Australian economy without limit as long as certain conditions are met. Additional spending is not being paid for by taxpayers and is not imposing any burden on future generations. All our political parties are resisting this conclusion and talking up ‘having to repay the debt’ even while the evidence from recent federal decisions is plain to see. Thus funding of a major shift of surface transport to renewable electricity is possible, desirable and necessary.
  2. Just as Covid-19 started as a health issue but has spread to now seriously impact most aspects of life across the globe, so climate change and the multifarious effects of raised CO2 will prove to be many times more disruptive than Covid-19. If 1 degC can impact bush- fires, water supply, fish and other mass- ive wildlife kills, think about 3-4 degC?

It is urgent that we use this information, take a long view of what sort of society is possible and achievable and plan accordingly. The contrast between this approach and what our political parties now contemplate are stark and well- illustrated in the consideration of inter- national air transport and tourism.

These are industries without a future in a climate challenged world.

I am disappointed that the Four Corners program on 19th June assumed – like the government – that the new normal will be an extension of the old normal. It will not and it cannot.


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