The contested notion of green aviation

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For some time, airlines and airports have been promoting the notion of sustainable aviation or green aviation.

Airlines have been marketing themselves as being green or environmentally sustainable, despite the fact that before COVID-19 their aeroplanes had been spewing a huge amount of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere, in the order of 5-6% of all emissions.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, on average there were 9728 aeroplanes in the sky at any one time, carrying more than 1.2 million passengers (2017 figures).

There is growing criticism of their role in contributing to the climate crisis, particularly from the likes of Kevin Anderson, renowned climate scientist at Britain’s Tyndall Centre, Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg and the flight shame movement. Given this, the aviation industry is doing the utmost to redeem itself and win back customers it lost due to the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns on air travel around the world.

The aviation industry’s latest ploy at greening itself is AVTECH Sweden’s flight path optimisation service, which promises to assist pilots in improving fuel efficiency by avoiding “unfavourable” air currents.

While such strategies may slightly improve fuel efficiency, they do not adequately address the aviation industry’s contribution to the climate crisis, particularly if the industry is ever able to return to “business-as-usual”.

Both Boeing and Airbus, the two principal aeroplane manufacturers, claim to be committed to environmental sustainability, another example of corporate environmentalism or, better put, greenwashing. Boeing asserts it is committed to improving the environmental performance of its products, diverse operations, promoting sustainable aviation fuel, reducing the emissions generated by its aeroplanes, and disposing of solid waste in an environmentally sustainable manner. Airbus asserts that it utilises the latest technologies in its efforts to maximise the benefits of its products and services, while maintaining the environmental impact of their manufacturing and operations.

The airlines and airline organisations boldly assert that greenhouse gas emissions from flights will progressively decline, even to the point that eventually “zero-emissions flights” will be achieved. Most airlines now have an environmental policy of some sort.

The aviation industry made a commitment to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions after 2020. Only time will tell where this commitment goes after this year, particularly as it struggles to ramp up business in the wake of an ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. It has promised reductions in emissions based upon future technological improvements, such as lighter airframes and more energy-efficient forms of propulsion, including solar flight, electric flight, and reliance on alternative fuels. Fuel efficiency does increase with the size of the aeroplane, meaning that flights in small private and chartered jets, favourites of corporate CEOs and the super affluent, are particularly energy-intensive and in terms of emissions.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), a body representing some 230 international airlines in 150 countries, proposed in 2007 to build a zero-emissions commercial aeroplane within 50 years. There has been little evidence of progress towards these goals and the IATA plan seems highly utopian and self-serving, an attempt to postpone the reckoning into an uncertain future. The plan conforms to the economic growth paradigm that drives global capitalism. However, lowering the cost of business operations is important to profit-making and success, so unless there is some imposed incentive, attempts to cut pollution and emissions may be seen to eat into profits and abandoned.

The Air Transport Action Group (ATAG) acknowledged that aeroplanes generated 724 million tonnes of CO2 in 2014, 65% from international travel and 35% from domestic travel, for a total of around 2% of the 36 billion tonnes of CO2 generated by human activities every year around the globe. It did not report that in terms of the total amount of emissions generated by aeroplanes, there is a factor of two or three placed on CO2 emissions, a fact that the aviation consistently downplays.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has supported an “open emissions trading scheme (ETS)”, one that includes other sectors in which international aviation is gradually integrated into national ETSs. Conversely, it opposes levies or taxes on emissions. In 2016, ICAO implemented the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA), a market-based measure designed to offset most of the growth in CO2 emissions, starting in 2020. CORSIA will be voluntary for the period 2021-2026, and mandatory from 2027-2037 when it will apply to all ICAO member countries, except for some developing countries. The scheme excludes domestic flights and other greenhouse emissions emitting from aircraft, such as nitrous oxide, methane, and ozone.

Airports Council International (ACI) operates the Airport Carbon Accreditation program and claims to work in collaboration with ICAO in promoting the “sustainable development” of aviation and “green airports.”

While the aircraft industry repeatedly emphasizes that its newer models are more energy efficient than ones produced in the past, large airlines in developed countries tend to sell their out-of-date planes to smaller airlines and airline companies in developing countries, meaning that the more energy-inefficient aeroplanes stay in service longer.

Many airlines have carbon-offsetting schemes, which do not account for other greenhouse gases that aeroplanes emit. In Greenwash: Big Brands and Carbon Scams (2015), Guy Pearse contends: “Offsets have become the airline greenwash tool of choice because they put the onus on the customer to cut emissions, and the airlines don’t have to make public any information on the quantity of emissions.” Participation levels in carbon offset programs tend to be very low.

While newer aircraft models are more fuel efficient than their older counterparts, existing aeroplanes remain in service for a long time, in the order of 25 years. Furthermore, manufacturing new aeroplanes entails a lot of embedded energy, with the manufacturing process resulting in emissions. Improved aircraft energy efficiency has been offset by a rise in the number of flights, at least prior to 2020, in the order of five to six per annum, one more example of the Jevons Paradox or “rebound effect” in which energy efficiency in capitalist countries is associated with increased economic growth, consumption (including energy consumption), pollutions, and greenhouse gas emissions, thereby cancelling the benefits of energy efficiency.

The aviation industry has been promoting renewable energy for aeroplanes for some time. Even if various technical problems associated with the use of biofuels for aircraft would be resolved, the production of biofuels for a variety of transport modes would require using huge swatches of land for their production, which would have the effect of pushing up world food prices and driving even more people into food poverty.

Solar-powered aeroplanes are often touted as a potential replacement for conventional aeroplanes, but the existing solar-powered aeroplanes are tiny. Furthermore, large solar-powered aircraft would require huge numbers of batteries requiring rare earth materials which are in limited supply.

It is not enough to make aeroplanes, along with motor vehicles, trains, and ships, more energy efficient and environmentally friendly. In the case of aeroplanes, it is imperative to seek ways to transcend them as much as possible and create alternative forms of mobility, such as solar-powered high-speed rail, air ships, and large sailing ships. Envisioning alternatives to aeromobility is an important component in the struggle to transcend capitalism and replace it with an eco-socialist world system.

[Hans A Baer is author of Airplanes, the Environment, and the Human Condition (2020).]

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