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US airlines and climate change; environment concern mounts - slowly

Airlines worldwide are working to become better environmental stewards through the adoption of a variety of activities, ranging from carbon offsets to reducing cabin waste.

And the biofuel industry has taken off during the past decade, with some airlines investing in biofuel development companies as work continues to bring alternative fuels to the mass market. 

For now, North American airlines appear to be staying apart from the 'Flight Shaming' movement that has swept across Europe. There could be several reasons for those operators steering clear of the agitation, and the most obvious is that there is little prospect of high speed rail ever becoming a reality in North America’s largest aviation market – the US.

But there are some signs that the high speed rail debate could be revived in the country during the not too distant future.

Summary

  • IATA faces a backlash as the 'Flight Shaming' movement grows. 
  • There is no similar movement in the US, and bolstering the country’s nearly non-existent high speed rail system will not garner large scale support in the near future. 
  • But climate change voices in the country remain strong, and will continue to gain momentum. 

High speed rail is not a viable complete replacement for air travel in Europe 

IATA’s commitment to environmental responsibility has been far from fleeting during the past decade, but the association has found itself on the defensive as the Flight Shaming movement has gained steam across Europe, and France has recently outlined plans to place an 'eco' tax on outbound flights from the country starting in 2020. 

The airline association has called the tax misguided, arguing that the tax will not help the industry invest in cleaner fuels and technology, and the EUR100 billion that aviation generates for the French economy is now at risk. 

KLM, which is now part of the Air France-KLM group and is based in a region of Europe – the Netherlands – where Flight Shaming has significant momentum, has launched a “Fly Responsibly” campaign that directs several questions at customers, including whether they need face to face meetings, or could take the train instead. 

CAPA has previously reported that France’s state-owned high speed rail service, centred in Paris, connects major cities across the country and in neighbouring countries, either on purpose-built lines or on a combination of high speed and conventional lines. But it is mainly in a loose star shape to and from Paris, rather than cross country east-west.

While such services do exist, they are not frequent – once daily, or even less often on some of them.

See related report: Europe’s rail system often complementary to air - not the alternative 

The report also stated that the rail transport system has to achieve substantial development before anyone could seriously propose that domestic air travel should be forcibly curtailed in its favour.

Another conclusion from the report is that although Italy and France have created high speed rail networks, as has Germany, in fact many airports in Germany are not well connected to the country’s high speed rail network. 

Future US high speed rail not likely, but efforts to revive the discussion are growing

In the US, high speed rail outside the northeastern corridor is essentially non-existent. Automobile travel is essentially a way of life for Americans, and recent efforts at building a structure for high speed rail have been, well, 'derailed'. 

A recent piece in Dope Magazine titled The Great American Train Debate highlights efforts by the administration of former president US Barack Obama to create blueprints for high speed rail systems in ten different parts of the country. 

But because Republicans won significant victories in the 2010 US mid-term elections, newly elected governors in Wisconsin, Florida and Ohio nixed those projects, and California’s high speed rail project has also, for the time being, essentially been cancelled. 

The publication summed up the view of high speed rail's proponents as, “America’s love for driving is an unsustainable addiction, forcing us to spend big on automotive infrastructure even as problems with traffic and greenhouse gases worsen”. 

A component of the Green New Deal proposed by US legislators earlier in 2019 is building out high speed rail travel, and according to factcheck.org, background materials from the high profile freshman legislator Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez regarding the bill include this statement: “Totally overhaul transportation by massively expanding electric vehicle manufacturing, build charging stations everywhere, build out high speed rail at a scale where air travel stops becoming necessary, create affordable public transit available to all, with goal to replace every combustion-engine vehicle.”

It should be noted that factcheck.org, also stated that the actual resolution introduced in the US Congress did not include any language suggesting an end to air travel. 

Given the partisan environment in the US and the historical aversion by Ms Ocasio-Cortez’s opposition party to high speed rail, some aspects of the Green New Deal remain aspirational, for now.

However, Ms Ocasio-Cortez represents a growing segment of the US electorate that is zeroing in on climate change as a global crisis, and both she and US Democratic hopeful Senator Bernie Sanders have joined together to pressure the US Congress to declare climate change a national emergency. 

The move is largely rhetoric at this point, but the message is clear that the influence of climate change advocates in the US and worldwide will continue (rightfully) to grow. 

Airline accountability for curbing climate change is a growing global trend 

CAPA has previously concluded that the ever increasing profile of climate change in the public consciousness will increase pressure on aviation to reach for more ambitious goals.

North American airlines will also continue to feel that pressure to become better environmental stewards as the voices calling for climate change to be declared a national emergency grow stronger. 

The current US Presidential administration is not inclined to push for new initiatives to combat climate change but aviation is a global industry, and US airlines will continue to have to answer to a growing chorus of concerned individuals about the industry’s impact on the climate and environment. 

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