by Tanguy Tomes7 minute read
In 2015, emissions from international aviation totalled 530 million tonnes (MT) of CO2, excluding any non‑CO2 emissions. In the same year, the UK reported its national emissions at around 496 MTCO2e. That means aviation is already emitting on a scale greater than the (then) fifth-largest economy in the world.
The position is worsening. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has predicted emissions growth from the sector of up to 700% by 2050. This has led the European Union (EU) to describe aviation as one of the “fastest-growing sources of emissions in the world.” But take a second to look at that figure: 700%. No country on Earth is on that kind of trajectory.
It has been estimated that, left unchecked, international aviation could be responsible for more than 1 in every 5 tonnes of CO2 emitted globally by mid-century. And all of these statistics exclude non‑CO2 emissions which, for aviation, may double its overall climate impact.
For many of us, choosing not to fly will be one of the biggest opportunities for reducing one’s individual footprint. But individual action can only achieve so much. Having trawled the choppy waters of international shipping in my last blog, let’s now turn to what is being done at a wider scale to reduce the impact of aviation.
Flying under the radar
Like the maritime sector, aviation falls to the edges of national responsibilities. The Kyoto Protocol, the first international treaty to call on countries to cut their carbon emissions, focused on territorial emissions. It left emissions from international transport to be tackled in collaboration with the relevant organisations: the International Maritime Organization (IMO) for shipping and the ICAO for aviation.
The Paris Agreement brought a subtle shift: responsibility for international transport could be assigned to nations. However, three years later, nations still report international transport emissions as a mere footnote while calling on those international bodies for action. How has the ICAO responded?
In 2016, it set a target of carbon neutral growth post-2020; they propose allowing net CO2 emissions to continue at 2020 levels indefinitely. While it beats a 700% increase, it is a meagre goal when substantial cuts in global emissions are needed. It is backed up by single new solution: a new carbon offset system called CORSIA.
Offset me not
Offset systems mean emitters don’t need to avoid reducing their direct emissions; instead, they invest in carbon-saving projects to offset the damage done. Offset schemes are fraught with technical and environmental quandaries. The United Nations has a well-established system, but 85% of its eligible offsets fail to actually reduce emissions. Such concerns also apply to CORSIA, but there are others. How does it function alongside other attempts to take action on aviation, such as the EU’s Emissions Trading System? It is feared that CORSIA would severely limit their potential, but the ICAO’s discussions seem shrouded in secrecy; the most recent ICAO meetings have resulted in no public communiques.
Even a fully watertight offset system would be unlikely to drive a reduction in fossil fuel consumption. CORSIA deserves the label “an accounting trick to meet a target on paper that doesn’t change anything in the atmosphere”. It seems designed to allow aviation and its associated emissions to keep growing without limits or controls, while allowing the grossly inadequate zero growth in net CO2 emissions target to be met. It’s disappointing because there is a great deal that could be done.
Mirroring opportunities available to the maritime sector, aeroplanes could achieve fuel efficiencies of around 10%, today, just by slowing down down a little. Timing, altitude, and routing can also influence the impact of emissions on the atmosphere. These measures are less well-understood than their maritime equivalents but seem like quick, easy wins – even if they cannot bring about full decarbonisation.
As long-term solutions, the industry favours improvements in efficiency and the use of alternative fuels. But the potential of efficiency improvements is often overstated whilst alternative fuels are problematic. Biofuels and waste fuels face problems of scale and don’t address the impact of non‑CO2 emissions. Electricity is more scalable, but much further from practical, large-scale deployment, even just on short-haul routes.
Research into alternative fuels must continue but it is clear that, in any relevant timeframe, the idea of sustainable aviation is a myth at current levels of demand. Instead, we must consider how to manage that demand; we need to fly less.
Air traffic control
We don’t need to start by introducing new policies directed at deterring or constraining flight. The obvious place to begin is by addressing the huge subsidies aviation currently receives, which distort consumer markets against alternative modes of transport such as trains.
Without state aid, more than half of European airports would run at a loss. 20% of Ryanair’s revenues may come from subsidies. None of the kerosene used in international aviation is taxed. Governments can’t start trying to manage the demand for air travel whilst at the same time actively propping up the entire industry.
That may seem unfair – won’t poorer people be priced out of flying? But in reality, that’s already the case. In the UK, just 15% of people take 70% of flights. Globally, it has been estimated that fewer than 10% of people have ever set foot on an aeroplane. Within this small subset, first class passengers have a carbon footprint nine times higher than those scrunched in economy, and are subsidised even more for the privilege. The subsidies benefit the rich far more than anyone else.
So, in the interests of environment and equity, we must stop subsidising aviation. The tax exemption for aviation fuel must be phased out – a step that needs international co-ordination if it isn’t to be undermined by tankering. Frequent flyer schemes should be banned and replaced with frequent flyer levies (FFLs). Evidently, there is scope for regulatory innovation here, but who is having these conversations?
If global aspirations to restrict temperature increases to 1.5°C are to be met, aviation demand must be constrained. The ICAO has a duty to work in line with those aspirations, but its proposals to date are inadequate, and the international community must reject them. We must instead demand transformation; and if the ICAO is too opaque and industry-friendly to commit to real change by COP 25, to help avert climate consequences that will damage the aviation sector – well, it should be moved aside.
COP 25 must be the last chance for both the ICAO and the IMO to face up to their responsibilities. They have had twenty years to act; we can’t wait another twenty. If a change in tack is not forthcoming, the UN must set up a new, transparent and accountable body for greenhouse gas emissions from international transport, with powers to impose appropriate climate targets upon the IMO and ICAO.
In the interim, nations must lead by example. However, this still seems like a remote possibility in the UK, where the Government’s (eventual) decision to expand Heathrow was made against the concerns of its climate advisor. It signals an expectation that aviation will grow – and while that remains the case, the many possible domestic initiatives to curtail demand will be meaningless. If the UK wants to achieve its own emissions reduction targets (which include aviation emissions), there is a lot of work to do.
Meaningfully cutting emissions from aviation is vitally important but often overlooked – perhaps because it seems hard, perhaps because it reduces people’s access to something we value. But addressing aviation emissions would simultaneously tackle a major contributor to the climate crisis and a structural economic inequality.
To be positive about the prospects of cutting emissions from international transport is reasonable. To be complacent certainly is not. Taking the issue seriously means coming to terms with the fact that, while normal for some today, flying cannot be an entitlement. The appropriate response to the climate crisis is to keep your feet on the ground.
Featured image: Caribb (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), via Flickr.