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Aviation takes off in threatening climate

Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 14 Nov 2012 12:27 GMT
Author: Suzy Mage and Guy Edwards
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By Suzy Mage and Guy Edwards

Chile’s LAN airline recently took over Brazil’s TAM, creating LATAM – the world’s second largest airline by market value. This merger reflects the impressive growth in Latin America’s aviation sector which is expected to see air passenger numbers almost triple by 2030.

Given the rapid rise of aviation’s contribution to global carbon emissions, the connection between air travel and climate change in Latin America and other developing regions cannot be ignored.

In a region where deficiencies in infrastructure are highlighted as an important factor stifling economic growth, improvements in air travel are crucial for business growth and helping people and goods to move around more easily.

Unlike North America and Europe, where one can board a high-speed train or a relatively quick flight, there is no easy way to travel around Latin America where options are confounded by large distances and uncompromising geography.

Buses are the most common form of transportation within and between Latin American countries. Although much cheaper than air travel, bus rides can last days and be both uncomfortable and dangerous, making flying a better option for those who can afford it.

The aviation industry is supporting economic growth in Latin America and creating millions of jobs and billions of dollars in national earnings. Several Latin American countries are also highly dependent on tourism, where air expansion plays a key role.

However, regardless of the various economic benefits, climate change and the environmental consequences of air travel need to be addressed by the aviation industry, governments and consumers.

As more people travel by air in the region, Latin America’s carbon footprint increases. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that global aviation is responsible for around 3.5 percent of anthropogenic climate change. Other negative impacts of aviation include noise and air pollution as well as effects on the social structures of local communities.


According to the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG) air passenger numbers in Latin America are expected to almost triple from 145.9 million in 2010 to 438.9 million in 2030. With Brazil hosting the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016, the high point of aviation growth in Latin America is yet to be seen.

Many key tourism destinations in Latin America and the Caribbean are concerned about the inclusion of aviation in greenhouse gas mitigation policies, which might increase the cost of air travel, leading to a reduction in tourism numbers.

The Latin American and Caribbean Air Transport Association (ALTA), which represents a number of the region’s main airlines, encourages the development of safer, more efficient and environmentally friendly air transport.

However, ALTA recently rejected the inclusion of international aviation in the EU-Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), which the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) also opposes claiming that the EU-ETS discriminates against the aviation industry and violates international law.

For the Kyoto Protocol’s “Annex 1” countries with binding limits on their greenhouse gases, emissions from domestic aviation are included within the targets, but those from international aviation are excluded.

Instead, developed countries are invited to pursue the limitation or reduction of emissions through the International Civil Aviation Organization. ICAO’s environmental committee is considering the potential for using market-based measures – such as emission trading – but this work is unlikely to lead to global action.

It is currently developing guidance for nations that want to include aviation in an emissions trading scheme to meet their Kyoto commitments, and for airlines who would like to participate voluntarily. Elsewhere, suggested plans include a levy on international airline travel to support U.N. funds to help developing countries cope with the impacts of climate change.

However, there has been some effort to reduce emissions. LAN was the first Latin American airline to sign the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) Green Aviation Partners agreement for a global approach to reducing emissions.


LAN also initiated its fleet renewal program in 2000. The new aircrafts require less fuel, enabling LAN to report they have reduced their emissions by approximately 10-15 percent since 2000.

In Brazil, the Brazilian Alliance for Aviation Biofuels was created in 2010 with the objective of promoting public and private initiatives seeking the development of sustainable aviation biofuels. In 2011 an AeroMexico plane made the world’s first transatlantic commercial flight using biofuel from the jatropha plant.

This year the ICAO launched its “Flight Path to a Sustainable Future”, an ICAO special Rio+20 global initiative consisting of the first-ever series of connecting flights powered by sustainable alternative fuels. And in Costa Rica, the government is offering tourists visiting the country the voluntary means to offset their flight’s emissions by contributing to protecting its forests.

The expansion of Latin America’s aviation industry will impact its ability to manage regional and global emissions from this sector. In order to lower the region’s relatively low levels of emissions, nations will have to invest more in sustainable transport options, renewable energy, energy efficiency and reducing deforestation.

Although Latin America accounts for 11 percent of global carbon emissions, “atmospheric space” is running out. Sustainable economic growth will require careful planning for a future of airline travel that does not inadvertently exacerbate profound social and environmental issues.

Guy Edwards, who is based in Ecuador, is a research fellow at Brown University’s Center for Environmental Studies and works with the Latin American Platform on Climate and the Climate and Development Knowledge Network. Susanna Mage, currently based in Argentina, is a recent graduate from Brown University, where she received a masters in environmental studies. This blog first appeared on Intercambio Climatico.

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