While other industries scramble to be ready for the onset of a carbon-emissions trading scheme, global aviation is still hesitating. But that doesn’t mean the industry is ignoring the need to act. Action itself is the stumbling block.

The International Air Transport Association recently set global aviation the goal of zero carbon dioxide emissions within 50 years. Richard Branson has spoken about trialling biofuels and increasing fuel efficiency. Then, a fortnight ago, he admitted that “… the aviation industry has been too slow at demonstrating what it is doing to help prevent environmental damage”, before adding that Australia “needs to be at the forefront of these developments”.

A new report by The Hodgkinson Group, advisers to the aviation industry, puts that need to act in compelling terms:

Over the next 20 years, more than 27,000 new aircraft will be delivered (globally); the number of air travelers will double to 9 billion over the same period.

And that hardware will be on the planet for decades. Further, the report debunks the claim that aviation is responsible for only 2% of global Greenhouse gas emissions, saying that figure:

a) is based on total anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions in 1992 (as determined by the IPCC), not 2007;

b) does not take into account aviation’s non-CO2Greenhouse gas … emissions which significantly contribute to the climate-change impacts of aviation; and

c) ignores growth in air travel.

But there remain significant impediments to action. As David Hodgkinson of the Hodgkinson Group explains: “International aviation is regulated on a government-to-government basis. It’s essentially a whole web of treaties. I think there are currently 3000 of them and they govern which airlines can fly from one country to another and so the regulatory complexity is huge.”  Reaching consensus in those circumstances is difficult, to say the least. But, it hasn’t stopped various groups offering their advice. Last month, The Australia Institute suggested that airlines should levy a $30 tax on passengers, raising $1 billion a year that could be spent on abatement or research and development. More importantly, says report author Andrew Mackintosh, the tax is a signifier to passengers that the environmental cost of air travel is now theirs to pay.

British Opposition Leader David Cameron has proposed a similar tax for the UK’s frequent flyers. According to The Times Online:

The new tariffs will be based on either the number of flights taken or the annual distance travelled. Families who take just one package holiday a year will be protected, but for subsequent flights the tax will escalate so that passengers pay more the further they travel.

British low-cost airline easyJet is acting, revealing plans for an “ecoJet” which reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 50% and nitrous oxide emissions by 75%. It also reduces condensation trails, which researchers say could have accounted “for a warming trend of half a degree Fahrenheit per decade in the years between 1975 and 1994″. But while there is talk of taxes and abatement programs, offset schemes and ecojets, one fact remains — aviation probably won’t be a part of an Australian emissions trading scheme, highlighting the problem aviation poses not only to Australia in a carbon-constrained future. “The industry so far has said that it is so complex it should be left to the UN or the International Civil Aviation Organisation to deal with,” David Hodgkinson says. “There’s an assembly meeting coming up in September which has made it easy for the airlines to say, ‘Let’s leave it until September’. But I can guarantee you there won’t be a solution coming out of that meeting.” Got a solution? Send it to [email protected].