Making space for emissions

What does the ubiquitous auto-rickshaw and the plush aeroplane have in common, other than getting us from one place to another? The auto-rickshaw, as India’s largest manufacturer Rahul Bajaj will tell you, is the symbol of democratic mobility — it provides transport for large numbers of people at what he says is affordable costs. But these vehicles are technology poor, and extremely polluting. How then do you control emissions from these vehicles, which are sources of employment for the poor; which drive the not-so-well-off from one place to another; and are manufactured using poor technology? How do you balance interests of equity and access with the interests of clean air and health?

Two approaches are possible: one, to find fuel and technology options to reduce emissions. Delhi, for instance, now runs autos on compressed natural gas; Kathmandu has a fleet of battery-operated autos; and Bangalore is experimenting with lpg. But if this emission-efficiency happens without controls on numbers of vehicles, then the ‘clean’ atmospheric space created will be gobbled up and decimated by the hordes of private vehicles on the roads.

The other approach would be to create ecological space for auto-rickshaws to emit. In other words, atmospheric space would be allocated based on the number of people a vehicle transports. Cars, which transport fewer numbers, would have to be reduced. This would also mean that we should reduce the numbers of auto-rickshaws and replace them with buses, which carry even larger numbers. If the bus is emission-free, we get a double win — where mobility is possible without damaging our health and the health of our planet. Call it moving from autocratic pollution to democratic pollution control.

But what does this have to do with aircraft? The fact is that airline travel is also getting “democratised” — large numbers of people travel in planes in both low-cost carriers and on short-haul routes. The question is two-fold: how will this growth of air travel affect global carbon emissions? How will the pollution from aircraft be shared within the atmospheric space of the world, particularly when greenhouse gas emissions are skewed by power and wealth.

We know that aircraft are responsible for greenhouse gas emissions. What is disputed is the degree of responsibility airlines should assume in limiting global emissions. The airline industry argues that its contribution to total human-made emissions is minuscule — less than 3 per cent of the world’s annual carbon dioxide emissions. Scientists say this could be underestimated as high-altitude emissions are more damaging. Nitrogen dioxide from airline engines leads to formation of ozone, and are worried about the impact of cirrus clouds formed by aircraft, which they believe contribute to global warming. If all this is accounted, the contribution of air travel to global warming is possibly closer to 5-9 per cent.

However, what is beyond dispute is that the airline sector is the fastest growing source of greenhouse gases. In Europe, emissions from air travel increased by an estimated 73 per cent between 1990 and 2003, and are spiralling. Environmental ngos estimate that this growth of airline emissions has just about cancelled out a quarter of the emission reductions made by European countries in the same period.

The Kyoto Protocol, which seeks to limit the emissions of the industrialised world, does not include international aviation emissions in its controls. Instead, the un’s International Civil Aviation Organisation was to address this issue, but has done little since. Now Europe is rocking this boat. In July, the European parliament voted in favour of measures to cap airline emissions in the future. When (and if) this scheme goes into effect in two to three years, it would involve creating a European airline emissions trading scheme — effectively putting a price on their emissions.

But protest is mounting. The aviation industry is calling it a “tax on holidays”. They scream that budget airlines and recreation travel will be hardest hit by this tax.

The problem is that global airlines, the mode of transport for the rich, have had a sweet deal. For instance, international flights do not pay fuel tax. They also get other exemptions, including huge financial bailouts from public funds when they are in trouble. Now this mode of transport is expanding its market — competing with cheaper railways, roadways and other modes of transport. Then budget airlines — in Europe and in India — are growing exponentially and are forcing their competitors to cut costs further. The only option is to push governments for lower taxation and more (not less) sops. In India, the clamour is to reduce the domestic tax on aviation fuel.

But here the similarity between autos and planes ends. The fact is that airline travel cannot be considered ‘survival’ emissions but are ‘luxury’ emissions. The fact also is that the rich in the world have overused their atmospheric space (or pollution quota) and that the poor need to be compensated for this overuse. The sad and unfortunate fact also is that the poor are most vulnerable to adverse climate changes. Therefore, a tax on the airline industry is needed to pay for the unused carbon quota of the poor or indeed their adaptation costs. This ‘entitlement’ payment will then provide incentives to invest in technologies that do not add to global emissions.

The auto-plane principle is simple: we will need to free up the occupied ecological space and then fill it up with things that can benefit all and do not blow up our present and future. Simple, yes, but unpalatable?

— Sunita Narain