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Justin Trudeau’s plan to cut airfares contradicts climate-change goals: Walkom

On the one hand, Ottawa wants more people to fly. On the other, it wants fewer. Which is it?
Nov. 7, 2016
By Thomas Walkom

As part of its effort to help the middle class, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government wants lower airfares so more people can fly.

But as part of its effort to combat climate change, it wants higher airfares so fewer people will fly.

This is what is known as a contradiction.

This particular contradiction was made manifest Thursday when Transport Minister Marc Garneau unveiled the government’s new airline policy in Montreal.

Garneau pledged to weaken Canada’s strict ownership rules in order to let foreign investors hold a bigger chunk of Canadian airlines.

He said two particular airline ventures hoping to take advantage of weaker foreign ownership rules may do so immediately without waiting for Parliament to change the law.

He said he was making the change to encourage competition in the highly monopolized Canadian airline industry and reduce fares.

“This will lead to more options for Canadians and allow the creation of new ultra low-cost airlines in Canada,” he said.

As a 2012 Transport Department report notes, ultralow fares will also significantly boost the number of people who choose to travel by air. That’s because air travel is exceptionally price sensitive. A small reduction in fares can cause an outsized increase in the number of people wanting to fly.

In a perfect world, this would not be a problem. But in a world suffering from climate change, it is.

Aviation fuel gives off carbon when burned. It also gives off other particulates that, because they are deposited in the upper atmosphere, contribute to global warming.

True, air travel is a relatively minor contributor to climate change. The David Suzuki Foundation estimates it is responsible for between four and nine per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

In Canada, according to the 2012 transport department report, domestic air travel on its own accounts for just one per cent of carbon emissions.

But these figures are on the rise. The Suzuki Foundation reckons the carbon dioxide emissions from international aviation have grown by 83 per cent since 1990. The transport department report says Canadian emissions rose between 2001 and 2010 in spite of successful efforts by airlines to increase fuel efficiency.

The Trudeau government says it is committed to reducing Canadian emissions overall. To that end, it has promised a carbon pricing regime that, among other things. would raise the price of aviation fuel to discourage people from flying.

This, after all, is the entire point of carbon pricing: to change behaviour by making practices that contribute to climate change more costly.

Garneau, a senior member of Trudeau’s cabinet, understands this. In his Montreal speech, he spoke glowingly of the government’s measures to battle climate change.

So what gives? Why, in this instance at least, is the government working against itself by simultaneously taking actions to both lower and raise airline fares?

There are two plausible explanations. One is that the Liberal government doesn’t mean it when it says it is committed to fighting climate change.

Indeed, it is possible that none of the governments that signed the Paris agreement on climate change meant it. The United Nations reported Thursday that the carbon reduction targets promised in that accord are so low that even if the signatories meet them, they won’t be able to prevent a global climate catastrophe.

The other explanation for the Canadian government’s curious approach to climate change and airline policy is that it just hasn’t thought things out.

Long-distance air travel can never be eliminated, particularly in a big country like Canada. But a government serious about climate change could focus on other, more energy-efficient forms of transportation, such as buses and trains for short-haul trips.

In his Montreal speech, Garneau devoted one line to that perennial wheeze: high-frequency train service between Quebec City and Windsor.

I expect Trudeau’s government, like those before it, will balk when it comes to doing something on this or anything else that might significantly improve passenger rail service in Canada.

But when global warming is taken into account, it’s not a bad idea. Certainly it’s better than encouraging more people to fly.