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Air travel latest target in climate change fight

Technology, taxation, and rationing are all being eyed as possible solutions.

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Given the limited prospects for a technological solution, a growing body of opinion is arguing for efforts to manage demand for air travel. "What matters is the next 10 to 15 years, and technology can do very little in that time frame," says Kevin Anderson of Britain's Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. "The principal issue is to reduce the rate of growth of air travel."

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Experts point to several options. Europe is planning to include aviation in its emissions-trading plan starting in 2011. The hope is to set an example to the rest of the world, chiefly China and India, where aviation growth is surging, that concerted efforts can make a difference.

Airlines will get a limited number of CO2 permits that can be traded; top polluters will have to buy additional permits, hurting their bottom line. The idea is to give airlines incentive to operate cleaner aircraft; higher ticket prices may result as well, reining in demand.

But experts note that caps will be set fairly high, weakening the imperative; ticket prices are expected to rise by only a couple of euros, if that. Consumer behavior may thus be little affected.

An alternative is direct taxation. John Stewart, chairman of AirportWatch, a British movement opposed to aviation growth, says air travel in Britain, at least, is "artificially cheap" because there is no tax on aviation fuel and the industry "really doesn't pay the cost of the pollution and the noise that it generates."

He says without a radical price change, it will be impossible to change the mind-set of a generation that thinks little of hopping $20 flights for weekend pursuits. Some have lobbied for cigarette-style health warnings on ads for air travel and long-distance holidays, but Mr. Stewart argues that the only way to change behavior is to hit the pocketbook.

"The first step is for governments to get together across Europe and come to an arrangement whereby aviation is taxed, to cut demand in particular for short-haul flights," he says. Stewart notes that 45 percent of all flights in Europe are less than 500 kilometers (310 miles) in distance. "The French and Germans are showing that if you invest in good railways, you can persuade people to travel by rail and not by air."

But it's not just about leisure travel. Business travel makes up, by some estimates, about 40-50 percent of all air travel. One element of the British Omega project is a study that looks at how business can reduce its aviation carbon footprint.

Keith Mason, who is spearheading the study, say it involves persuading businesses to measure the carbon they consume, choose flights that are not just the lowest cost but are least environmentally damaging, use rail where possible, and make greater use of videoconferencing and webcast solutions.

"We are aiming to come up with a range of practical tools that will help companies start managing their carbon consumption," says Professor Mason. One company, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, has, he notes, introduced an internal 'carbon budget' whereby its 1,000 top travelers must reduce their CO2 footprint by 20 percent.

Indeed, some experts believe that personal carbon budgets – rationing – may be the only solution.

"It's too late for voluntary mechanisms," says Dr. Anderson. "Carbon allowances are the only fair way to deal with this."