It is not right, and it is not a right, to fly all the time

Cheap air travel is leading us to squander earth's limited natural energy resources. Alex Owen tells

In the 1960s, flying was portrayed in the media as almost impossibly glamorous; entering an airport admitted one, it was thought, to a world of luxury. Even the term "jet set" confirmed flying as the preserve of the elite.

Perhaps the image of flight in the popular imagination bore as much resemblance to the real thing as a Ferrero Rocher advertisement to a genuine embassy ball, but the myth persisted. Young women dreamed of becoming air hostesses, though the job is akin to being a care home assistant at 30,000 feet. Young men dreamed of becoming fully paid up members of "the mile high club". Everyone wanted to travel by plane and, by the 1990s, everyone did.

According to the Civil Aviation Authority, UK airports handled 235 million passengers in 2006. Budget airlines have "democratised" air travel. Now the glamour has gone and so has the comfort. Unless you pay a fortune to travel first class, flying is an ordeal, not a luxury, with trials including restricted legroom, anti-terror checks, air rage and deep vein thrombosis. And yet, the less pleasant flying becomes, the more people fly. There is only one reason for this: cost. Earlier this year, Ryanair offered flights to destinations around Europe, tax-paid, for one penny each. Flights that would have cost a week's wages 25 years ago were given away for less than the cost of a chewy sweet.

The cost of air travel is clearly far too low. There must be a proper cost imposed on aviation fuel so that its environmental impact is factored into the price. The truth is that for too long we have squandered the Earth's limited natural resources. We have treated fossil fuels as though they would last forever. Even if you don't accept the global warming hypothesis, you need to worry about the fact that most petrochemical analysts believe we are only a few years away from "peak-oil" - that moment when the production of crude oil reaches its zenith, after which supplies will eventually dwindle away to nothing. Is it really sensible to waste our remaining supplies on something as unimportant as air travel?

In 1982 there were 149 flights a week between London and New York. Today there are 440. According to official airline guides, the total number of transatlantic flights every week is 5,234. Flying has brought benefits, ranging from helping businessmen to find new markets to enabling journalists to follow up stories around the world and tourists to experience other cultures first hand.

Unfortunately, flying is also contributing to climate change and will, unless we act now, destroy the very wonders that people fly to see. According to figures from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, aviation accounted for 13 per cent of total UK climate change damage in 2005. Emissions from flying were responsible for 6.3 per cent of UK CO2 emissions, but this figure must be multiplied because of "radiative forcing". Radiative forcing means that carbon dioxide released at altitude creates a greater greenhouse effect than the same amount of gas released at sea level. The government accepts this and so has used a multiplier of two to reflect CO2's increased greenhouse potency at altitude, thereby reaching a figure of 13 per cent. However, scientists are not sure what the multiplier for radiative forcing should be. Some claim that a more realistic multiplier is 4.3.

The United Kingdom's Department for Transport predicts a 3.3 per cent rise in air travel every year from 2000-2030. Clearly, this would result in ever greater CO2 emissions. This is unsustainable and will, unless action is taken, result in the UK failing to meet its Kyoto commitments.

The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution has stated: "if no limiting action is taken, the rapid growth in air transport will proceed in fundamental contradiction to the government's stated goal of sustainable development." It added: "The availability of cheap air transport currently enjoyed by the public is a very recent phenomenon. It is not a traditional 'right' in any sense, but a privilege enjoyed by the global elite. Climate change, in contrast, will affect every person and its consequences may be most damaging for those in the developing world."

The number of flights is environmentally unsustainable: it must be reduced. Commercial air travel has brought benefits, but the drawbacks outweigh them tenfold. There are alternatives. Video conferencing has dramatically improved. Electronic access means that computer files can be shared in real time from the other side of the world.

Our continued insistence on meeting face to face is outmoded when communications are so good. Many teenagers spend much of their time online, where virtual worlds such as Second Life have millions of members who meet in cyberspace without ever leaving their homes. These communities will undoubtedly rise in prominence as the technology improves and as a new generation grows up totally at home in the virtual world. As these communities grow, our love affair with flight will come to an end - as it has to.

Alex Owen is head of research for Carbon Capital Ltd

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The Brown revolution begins