News Update: Qantas’ environmental disaster, it's not just emissions we need to be careful of

27 April, 2017

Global passenger numbers are increasing every year, with more services, more aircraft, and more infrastructure all having a detrimental impact to the environment. Yes, the industry relies heavily on fossil fuels, leaving a large carbon footprint which has to concern even the most conservative Trump supporter who doesn't believe in Global Warming but it's not just emissions which are causing the problem. Only in the last couple of weeks have we seen an incident here at home which threatened an entire ecosystem.

On 10-Apr-2017, 22,000 litres of firefighting foam spilled from a Qantas hangar in Brisbane, with about one quarter leaking into the environment and surrounding water systems. The foam, which had been banned in Queensland following the discovery of environmentally harmful chemical contents, was in the process of being replace under new regulations by the government and Qantas was quick to point that out: "The foam we use in Brisbane meets our current requirements under federal safety regulations, we have been working through a process to replace it with a type that meets the Queensland government's updated requirements".

Qantas has since been issued with an investigation notice by Queensland's Department of Environment Heritage and Protection (EHP) over the toxic spill, with EHP executive director Andrew Connor advising that the notice puts the onus on Qantas to monitor and report the effects of the spill. Preliminary test results of the waterways around the area show levels of the chemical have dropped to safe for recreational purposes, however, warnings remain in place to avoid eating marine animals caught in the area.

While the EHP haven't expressed if the notice will incur a penalty, some have reported that it could reach up to AUD182,850. Queensland prawn farmers have requested compensation from Qantas due to the limiting of available areas for trawlers to operate. As an example, Moreton Bay Seafood Association vice president Michael Wood believes he lost a AUD10,000 order due to fears the river was contaminated. In a positive step for the carrier, Qantas has now agreed to compensate those businesses affected and accepted full responsibility. Qantas Domestic CEO Andrew David stated, "where there is clear evidence of any commercial harm to them, we will make that good. We absolutely acknowledge that the issue that happened here is a Qantas issue, we've fixed that problem, we are quite disappointed and are very sorry it has happened."

IATA aims to have a reduction in net aviation CO2 emissions of 50% by 2050

While this may somewhat appease the businesses affected by the incident and allowed Qantas to avoid a PR nightmare, one must ask what greater impact this will have on the local environment in Brisbane. Are we to just accept that the levels are no longer harmful and therefore everything is ok? What are the longer term impacts to this area? Does monetary compensation make up for the incident? So many unanswered questions.

The International International Air Transport Association (IATA) has recognised the need to address the global challenge of climate change and adopted a set of ambitious targets to mitigate CO2 emissions from air transport:

  • An average improvement in fuel efficiency of 1.5% per year from 2009 to 2020
  • A cap on net aviation CO2 emissions from 2020 (carbon-neutral growth)
  • A reduction in net aviation CO2 emissions of 50% by 2050, relative to 2005 levels

It seems strange though that majority of the focus is based purely around CO2 emissions and fuel efficiency. The example of Qantas' toxic spill shows that the aviation industry can have a bigger impact on the environment which IATA and all carriers should be addressing.