The future of aviation - Transport Committee Contents

Memorandum from Mr K Lister (FOA 01)


  This document addresses the specific questions raised regarding aviation expansion. It demonstrates the case for continued expansion is unfounded and is a folly in the light of the planetary emergencies facing us all.

The responses argue that aviation expansion:

    Can never be compatible with either the climate change bill or the scientific evidence on climate change.

    Is morally and financially unjustified given the set of crises facing us.

    Can only be curtailed by reducing capacity

1.  What is the value of aviation to the UK economy? What are the roles of the London and regional airports? What competition do they face from abroad?

  1.1  This question presupposes value to the UK economy is something that can be quantified in terms of tax receipts and contribution to overall GDP. However, this is a narrow and imprecise definition and when used as the sole arbitrator then bad decisions will be made which will be expensive in the long term.

1.2  A more relevant approach would be to segment the economy into sustainable and unsustainable segments. The aviation industry has a large value to the unsustainable economy, and a negative value to the sustainable economy. The unsustainable sector of the economy is based entirely on cheap energy from easily available fossil fuels. It assumes that these fossil fuels are infinitely available or can easily be substituted with alternatives. These are both naive and false assumptions.

  1.3  Firstly, fossil fuels by definition are not infinitely available. It is now widely accepted that peak oil will occur soon. The only debate now is of time. Some commentators have suggested that we have already passed peak oil and others are suggesting that it is soon to come in the near future. Inasmuch as the oil companies and International Energy Agency are now recognising peak oil, then it is totally foolhardy to pretend that it will not exist, which is the pretence that is needed to justify the aviation industry. The recent IEA report, Resources to Reserves,[1] states "most countries outside of OPEC have passed their peaks in conventional oil production, or will do so shortly."

  1.4  Secondly, no viable energy alternative to fossil fuels has been discovered, despite all the best efforts. This lack of a viable alternative is particularly acute in the aviation industry. The only two possible alternatives are hydrogen and biofuels. Hydrogen fuel is not an option. Its energy density is too low to make it a practical aviation fuel, and it does not resolve the issue of the energy supply. Biofuel is not an option due to the enormous landmass that is needed and the energy intensive agriculture required. Irreparable damage is already being done by the biofuel industry to the planet's eco-system and claims from biofuel supporters that it is carbon neutral are totally irrelevant when the reality is that we arc essentially burning out planets lungs.[2] In essence, the pursuit of biofuel is a scorched earth policy on a continental scale as the planet's critical biodiversity is burnt and cleared in support of the wants of the planet's elite minorities.[3]

  1.5  Thus investments in airports and the aviation industry, which represents the most carbon intensive form of travel, are the ultimate statements of economic and environmental folly.

  1.6  It does not matter if public or private bodies make these investments. Either approach diverts scarce resources and manpower to projects that are non-viable in the long term.

  1.7  Public and private financing are simply different financial engineering approaches and do not offer a solution to the underlying problem that we face; that is growth in real wealth is restrained by increasing scarcity of natural resources, both at the source end (oil depletion), and the sink end (absorptive capacity of the atmosphere for CO2).

  1.8  As we approach these limits of growth then the "Marginal costs of growth will exceed marginal benefits, so that real physical growth makes us poorer, not richer".[4] This is the fundamental cause of the current credit crisis. As the limit of growth is reached, the fractional banking reserve system that underpins all economies by circulating loans and debt to enable printing of money will collapse. Loans that the banking system offers are serviced in an economy when limits have not yet been achieved and energy and raw materials are continuously supplied. However as soon as growth limits are reached, the ability to repay loans collapses and the fractional reserve systems goes into a dangerous reverse causing a drying up of liquidity. The associated economic transition to a new equilibrium state and paradigm will be non-linear and permanent. The first stages of this are now being played out. Once true accounting for CO2 emissions is introduced, the effect of this new limit on the economy will increase the severity of the transition, leading to further financial turmoil.

  1.9  In these circumstances, no amount of demand stimulus will be effective. The fact is that demand for staples is increasing due to worldwide population growth and falling supply. Against this background, government support for new airports and increased aviation capacity falls into the category of false stimulus. It is delusionary to believe that it will provide a stable long-term economic growth platform. On the contrary, it will increase our dependence on resources that are becoming exhausted, just at the time when we need to be carefully using what resources we still have to enable as smooth a transition as possible to a sustainable economy.

  1.10  Thus finally in conclusion, not only does airport expansion not contribute to the sustainable economy, it actually robs it of resource, leadership and public support, hence its negative contribution to the sustainable economy.

2.  Is the current aviation infrastructure adequate for the needs of UK business and individuals and how should it be developed? What are the implications of future passenger trends and possible mergers in the airline industry?

  2.1  The existing aviation infrastructure is unquestioningly adequate for the needs of UK business and individuals. However, it will not be adequate for the wants of UK businesses and individuals, no matter how much expansion is offered.

2.2  At present, leisure flights take up the biggest proportion of seats. Many of these flights are for frivolous activities such as weekend breaks, multiple trips to holiday homes, stag weekends and shopping trips. Given the serious problem that we face now that runaway climate change has started,[5] these non-essential and discretionary trips should be dispensed with and passengers should be encouraged not to take these types of flights. The capacity released from this will allow the needs to be easily catered for.

  2.3  Trying to ensure that the wants are satisfied ties us into economic dependence on unsustainable industries such as International Tourism. The current economic crisis is showing this to be the most fickle of all industries. Flyingmatters, which represents the interests of the aviation industry, recognises this fact on their web site, where they say, "International tourism is a price-sensitive industry and tourists have a choice—they can choose other, cheaper destinations."[6] Cheaper destinations during times of increasing economic hardship are essentially going to mean staying at home; that will be both UK and foreign tourists and the currently falling passenger numbers in UK airports are evidence of this future inevitability.

3.  To what extent can rail provide an alternative to short-haul flights?

  3.1  To put this question in context, it is assumed that rail in this case means high speed rail, as this is usually presented as being the alternative to short-haul flights.

3.2  Though rail will be able to provide some alternative to short haul flights, its success will be limited by a number of issues.

  3.3  The existing rail network is virtually at full capacity, both in terms of train paths and seat capacity at peak time.

  3.4  Most airports in this country are not connected to the Intercity network, with the exception of Birmingham International.

  3.5  The aviation infrastructure has been focused in this country on a hub and spoke approach. The introduction of the A380 will serve to entrench this and increase demand for short haul connecting flights. Replacement of these short haul services on a like for like basis that would provide equivalent journey time solutions will require high speed rail connections directly from the hub airports (Heathrow, Manchester and Birmingham) to virtually the rest of the country and much of Northern Europe.

  3.6  Construction of high-speed links on this scale would be prohibitively expensive in the current economic environment. As an order of magnitude, the upgrade of the West Coast Main Line cost approximately £8billion and the scope of work was to track upgrades and resignalling with existing technology. In addition, the rail network suffers from various bottlenecks and resolution of these is hugely expensive. Reading station is a typical bottleneck and current estimates for remodelling and capacity enhancement are in the order of £800 million.

  3.7  If new high-speed lines are introduced, the costs will be significantly higher than recent line upgrades. This will be in terms of financial and political costs as large-scale compulsory purchases will be necessary to build the required rail infrastructure near existing airports and to build the high speed connecting lines. The political costs would be accentuated in a fragile economy were people may be less inclined to move and be more alienated from authority. To ensure a financial payback, high utilisation of the service needs to be assured, which means that it must be encouraged to operate at or as near to full capacity as much as possible.

  3.8  To operate a high speed network at or near full capacity will require enormous amounts of energy. Trains of the French TGV class or Japanese bullet trains require in the order of 6 to 13 MW of power each. The exact power depends on the number of carriages per train. Based on the fact that there are 31 Pendolinos on the West Coast, then assuming that the network was increased to compete with short haul planes, then at least 50 trains would be expected to operate across the country at any one time. This equates to approximately 500 MW of capacity, which is equivalent to a medium sized coal fired power station or 600 2MW offshore wind turbines operating with a highly optimistic and continuous 40% capacity factor. As the service needs to operate at full capacity, then it vital that the power supply must be highly reliable as any failure will cause wide spread disruption and could have repercussions that would take days to resolve.

  3.9  Given the current concerns for power outages across the UK grid due to lack of generating capacity, a new high-speed electrified railway is unlikely to be reliable. This situation is likely to become more severe as the power generating solutions take account of the requirement in the climate change bill for an 80% cut in greenhouse gases. If a reliable service cannot be guaranteed, then the economic viability of rail replacement collapses.

  3.10  The alternative approach is to dispense with the idea of trains competing with planes, by banning short haul flights. The rail service will then avoid the costly and energy intensive competition inherent with providing a high-speed network. Instead it can provide the intercity connectivity that is needed for a large population with a slower speed network, but at the expense of journey time. This would also make the concept of hub and spoke aviation operations more difficult, and thus stem the demand for fuel intensive hub-to-hub connections.

  3.11  The energy required by a train is approximately proportional to the square of the speed; so halving the line speed means that only a quarter of the energy is needed. Therefore a lower speed network requires very much less energy leading to a more reliable network, especially in an energy constrained future. Also reliability would be further enhanced as track maintenance requirements are less onerous and the rail would need less routine replacement.

  3.12  Furthermore, a slower speed rail network actually allows for more passengers to be carried. This is because the braking distance is proportional to the kinetic energy of the train, which in turn is proportional to the square of the speed. So, effectively doubling the line speed, quadruples the braking distance. It is the worst-case braking distance that determines the separation between trains, and hence line capacity.

  3.13  Fundamentally, a low speed, high volume network allows travel options for all. By contrast, a high speed, low volume network caters to the elite minority but requires subsidy by all. However, a low speed line cannot compete on a like for like basis against short haul aviation.

4.  What costs does aviation impose on society and the environment? What are the implications of climate change policy—in particular the Climate Change Act 2008—for the aviation industry and infrastructure?

  4.1  Aviation has now been incorporated into the climate change bill and this commits the UK to a legally binding 80% cut in CO2 emissions.

4.2  However, the evidence now facing us is that runaway climate change has now started and cuts of 80% will still be too small to make the difference that is needed.

  4.3  There has been no public debate yet on how our society will achieve an 80% cut or how we will determine when the target has been reached. As such, we do not know how this cut will be made whilst balancing the current demands for economic growth.

  4.4  Despite the need for cuts in CO2 emissions and the international efforts such as the Kyoto agreement, CO2 is continuing to rise and more seriously, the rate of increase is increasing.[7] Therefore achieving the necessary cuts, at a time of increasing population growth at home and abroad is going to be a challenge unlike our civilisation has ever faced before.

  4.5  Even in the hypothetical situation that the aviation industry was somehow immune from making CO2 cuts and was magically able to carbon trade its way out of the problems, it is likely that it would face an enormous public backlash as they continue operating and profiteering when everyone else is forced to make drastic cuts in emissions.

  4.6  This will lead to social unrest as the better of in society continue to buy the carbon entitlements that are on offer and the less well off are forced to suffer in hunger and cold as they are priced out of the carbon market.

  4.7  The impact of the limits on the supply side (due to oil and gas shortages) has already has an enormous effect on the world's economy. Introduction of another more onerous limit associated with carbon emissions will have a far bigger impact and lead to the bankruptcy of most carbon intensive business operations, such as aviation.

  4.8  There is no way around this situation. The aviation industry are already trying various lies, such as carbon neutrality from biofuels, carbon trading, and claims that planes such as the A380 and Boeing 787 are environmentally friendly. These lies are contemptible. They fly in the face of all scientific and economic evidence. The power brokers pursing them are taking the position that the rights of future generations are expendable and unimportant, and must be sacrificed for the better good of today's businesses and consumers. This is analogous to the Nazi party position that Russians and Jews were expendable for the better good of the Germans.[8]

5.  What is the impact of taxation on the aviation sector nationally and regionally? Are passengers adequately protected from the collapse of airlines?

  5.1  Clearly, increased taxation will help to stem demand and will be presented to the public as such, However, the government has shown in the past that it will not maintain high taxes as a tool to stem demand in the face protest.

5.2  This pattern has been seen in petrol taxes and aircraft passenger duty.

  5.3  It is impossible to envisage a position where taxation provides the demand reduction necessary to comply with the 80% CO2 cut that the climate change bill demands.

  5.4  It has so far always been the policy of the Department of Transport to cater for transport demand. In a letter[9] I sent to the Ruth Kelly asking the question "Your statements so far on travel policies have all been concerned with providing enough supply to met demand. Can you confirm what you are doing to reduce demand?" received the eventual reply[10] "It is not Government policy to reduce demand."

  5.5  Political expediency will always intervene to ensure that taxes never rise to a point that will actually stem demand. Thus none is the answer to the question posed.

6.  What is the impact on the aviation sector of changes in the security environment?

  6.1  Al-qaeda type atrocities remain a current threat to the aviation industry and society in general. However, the terrible events such as 9/11 and the attempts since then to blow up planes in the mid Atlantic did not have a long term impact on passenger numbers and most regular users prefer to take the attitude that it will not happen to them and they will continue flying. Something far worse would be needed before people decide to give up flying en masse.

6.2  However, the recent invasion by Plane Stupid at Stanstead will become a more frequent experience for passengers. As the wider population realise that climate change is something that will affect them directly, and will not be confined to distant parts of the world, then the aviation industry must expect that support and sympathy for these types of events will increase. This will combine with more people being attracted to these events as they become more disillusioned with normal democratic means, especially if reviews like this end up supporting the aviation industry's continued growth in the face of the overwhelming evidence against it.

January 2009

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2[email protected]/biofuels/Tescobiofuelreportversion1.pdf
Biofuel assessment for Tesco. Back

The UN Human Development report has also likened our ambivalence to climate change to the crimes of the Nazi Era-"During the 20th Century failures of political leadership led to two world wars. Millions of people paid a high price for what were avoidable catastrophes. Dangerous climate change is the avoidable catastrophe of the 21st Century and beyond." Back

4   http://www.theoildrum.eom/node/4899#more
Professor Daly, Senior Economist at the World Bank and currently Ecological Economist at University of Maryland. Back

Latest predictions are for the arctic ice to melt by 2011-2015. When this happens climate change will enter a new and much more serious phase. Back

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7   http://uk.geocities.eom/[email protected]/biofuels/Tescobiofuelreportversion1.pdf
page 7, figure 3. Back

8   The reference to the UN Human Development report has already been made. Also Primo Levi who survived Auschwitz, wrote in the Drowned and the Saved, shortly before his suicide, that "Power is like a drug: the need for either is unknown to anyone who has not tried them, but after the initiation, which can be fortuitous, the dependency and the need for ever larger doses is born; also born is the denial of reality and the return to childish dreams of omnipotence." He went on to say, "There are those who faced by the crime of others or their own, turn their backs so as not to see it and not feel touched by it: deluding themselves that not seeing was a way of not knowing, and that not knowing relieved them of their share of complicity." These powerful statements that uniquely capture the essence of the Nazi era, also capture the essence of those organisations that seek to ignore and dismiss climate change to preserve their ability to profiteer. Back

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