Air travellers should pay the price of pollution

Those planning holidays in far-flung destinations will grumble at the announcement yesterday by British Airways that it is more than doubling its fuel surcharge on long-haul ticket prices. The hike, from £2.50 to £6 each way is intended to blunt the effects of soaring oil prices on BA's profits. Other big carriers like Virgin Atlantic are expected to follow suit.

Yet, while passengers will doubtless resent the additional £12 on to the cost of a round trip from, say London to Sydney or Los Angeles, fuel charges are far from as burdensome to individual air travellers as they ought to be. BA is not, for example, applying the modest surcharge to short-haul travel because rival European discount carriers do not apply a levy.

Air travel has never been cheaper. We can, thanks to deregulation and competition, fly to the four corners of the earth for the weekend if we wish. But airline travel is also as cheap as it is, because fuel, at least until the recent oil price pressures began to bite, is still cheap to the airlines. Disgracefully, governments are still refraining from taxing aviation fuel despite evidence that the rapid growth in exhaust emissions is contributing more and more to the greenhouse effect and climate change. In 2000, UK civil aviation produced 5 per cent of Britain's carbon dioxide. By 2020 that will have risen to 12 per cent. Globally, aviation causes 3.5 per cent of manmade global warming and that figure could rise to 15 per cent by 2050. Yet aircraft emissions were not even included in the Kyoto Protocol.

Most European governments support some form of "green" tax on air travel, but will not enact it unless the United States and other big economies also sign up. And in North America, which accounts for 40 per cent of world air travel, the issue has not even registered on the political radar.

The projected growth of 5 per cent annually in global air traffic is environmentally unsustainable. An environmental tax levied on all air journeys might bump up the cost of airline travel. But at the individual level, we would be left in no doubt of the full cost of polluting emissions every time we logged on to snap up a bargain basement fare.