Save people not planes

May 18, 2020

The crash of the aviation industry has featured continuously in the mainstream media over the past few months and, in most cases, there has been no mention of the climate crisis. We expect the political right to be pushing their profit-seeking agenda, but the centre left is doing the same.

British Labor Party Crawley Councillor Peter Lamb decried the fall of Virgin Atlantic because of job losses around Gatwick Airport and impacts to the local economy. The Australian Council of Trade Unions pushed for public funds to be used to bail out Virgin Australia, which is 90% foreign owned, to save jobs.

Across the mainstream political spectrum, jobs are seen as jobs, without any regard to the intensity with which these industries burn fossil fuels. There has been nowhere near enough discussion about supporting fossil fuel workers while transitioning to a transport sector based on renewable energy. This, in itself, would create thousands of jobs.

How is it that such a critical consideration ‒ that is, the future of a stable climate ‒ has been left out of the discussion about the aviation industry? There has been scrutiny about the coal, oil and gas industries using the COVID-19 crisis to push their agenda. So why isn’t aviation being framed in these terms? One reason might be that aviation is rarely seen as a fossil-fuel industry, thanks to clever marketing and deceptive tactics.

Dangerous marketing

One of the most dangerous tactics used by the aviation industry has been their use of market-based “solutions” for carbon emissions reduction, including CORSIA ‒ the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation. This is the scheme adopted by the United Nations International Civil Aviation Organization to deal with aviation emissions, which had previously been excluded from the Paris Agreement (or, in their words, to “achieve the sustainable growth of the global civil aviation system”).

The scheme requires voluntary participation from airlines from 2021 (the “pilot phase”) to offset emissions above their 2020 level. The 2020 baseline for CORSIA was adopted in 2016, long before aviation capitalists knew what would happen to their industry during COVID-19 (or before they were willing to admit its vulnerability).

Predictably, the industry is now lobbying to have their baseline modified, since carbon emissions from aviation in 2020 could be up to 50% lower than in 2019, thereby increasing carriers’ offsetting costs for emissions above this lower-than-expected level. Changing the baseline year for CORSIA would be disastrous for the climate.

Carbon offsetting usually involves planting a certain number of trees that would theoretically draw down the equivalent amount of CO2 from the atmosphere. This approach was enthusiastically adopted by neoliberal policy makers worldwide and has successfully dominated mainstream “carbon market” thinking, even within many scientific and environmental organisations.

Climate scientist Kevin Anderson described carbon offsetting as “dangerously deceptive” because it manipulates the public (and many scientists themselves) into believing that flying can continue increasing at the rate it has been over the past decades.

On the contrary, carbon offsets support a system of capital accumulation, land dispossession in the Global South and environmental destruction. This market-based strategy has dominated climate discussions since the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was adopted in 1992 (the precursor to the Kyoto Protocol), despite little evidence that carbon offset schemes work.

Some scientists have completed sophisticated and laudable analyses to show why carbon offsets don’t work, but the problem is actually quite simple. Trees take decades to grow and we don’t have decades. Even if we could implement large scale carbon drawdown now, we still need to stop burning fossil fuels. We passed the “safe” level of CO2 concentration in the atmosphere (350 parts per million) in 1986.

Recent years have seen us abandon the significance of the 350 ppm level, in favour of new discussions about allowable “carbon budgets”. But, right now, there is no safe level of carbon that can be emitted. We don’t have a carbon budget, we have a carbon debt and we are years past the due date for paying it back.

Jobs are not jobs

Some governments and institutions use the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a basis for their sustainability or carbon reduction policies. But the UN has no interest in reducing aviation emissions, as we have seen with their CORSIA program. They also cite tiny increases in fuel efficiency as a policy position.

SDG number 8: “Decent work and economic growth” conflates employment with growth, so that challenges to this goal of undefined economic growth could be seen as an attack on jobs. It’s another way to hide behind a pretence of caring about workers while ignoring the fact that we’re heading off a climate cliff.

The UN ignores planetary boundaries in their quest for economic growth, which stalls our ability to pursue alternative economic models of employment (such as. a degrowth view on employment or non-market societies).

Transport for the rich

It is often claimed that aviation “only” contributes around 2% of global carbon emissions. But at altitude, aviation’s suite of emissions has a warming contribution several times greater than that of CO2 alone. On a global scale, the vast majority of the population (about 80%) has never been on a plane. Worldwide, the top 10% of people by income consume 75% of air transport energy. Even in rich countries like Australia, fewer than 2% of the population (the frequent flyers) create 20% of the greenhouse gas emissions from aviation. Seen in this way, the contribution to greenhouse gas emissions from the small minority who fly is substantial.

For wealthy people who fly, the CO2 emissions from a single flight overwhelms all other “green” behavioural changes, such as being vegan and avoiding plastic (that’s not to say we shouldn’t be vegan or avoid plastic ‒ but we need perspective). When you think about the disproportionate contribution of flying to greenhouse gas emissions, it is perverse that frequent flying is still rewarded, both officially through frequent flyer programs and unofficially as a socially accepted badge of “worldliness”.

Outside China, the rapid spread of COVID-19 disproportionately throughout wealthy countries is largely because of variations in when governments implemented lockdown. But the contribution of aviation to this pattern cannot be ignored. Aviation is not only unjust but also dangerous for the climate and public health.

The people’s leadership

The lack of climate leadership from the UN and national governments has prompted activists to take the aviation sector by its horns. Even before COVID-19, more than 23,000 people had pledged to be Flight Free in 2020 across 10 countries. The majority of these were in Sweden, where the campaign gained more than 14,000 pledges contributing to a 9% reduction in domestic air travel and a 4% decline in total air travel.

These numbers might seems small compared with the coronavirus crash but there is a big difference in reducing aviation in response to a truthful awareness campaign and being forced to stop because of a pandemic. It shows what can happen when people realise the impact that flying has on the climate. In the academic community, the No Fly Climate Sci initiative has 611 signatories, while a campaign to reduce flying in the academic community has 712 academic signatures and 2634 public signatures.

Since 2017, the international network Stay Grounded has been linking struggles for just transport systems which put people and the climate before the profits of aviation executives and shareholders. This global network of more than 150 organisations includes local airport opposition and climate justice groups, communities struggling against offset projects and biofuel plantations, NGOs and trade unions.

Stay Grounded rapidly responded to the COVID-19 crisis by campaigning against aviation bailouts. They organised an open letter signed by more than 340 organisations and more than 300 scientists and experts, outlining three demands:

  • workers are supported with strong labour and health protections, and a real living basic income during the crisis is provided for flight attendants, pilots, ground-staff, caterers and other impacted workers,
  • governments must support system-wide changes to transport networks, ensuring access to affordable alternatives (such as rail travel) and enabling workers to move away from fossil-fuel dependent jobs and into decent climate jobs
  • airlines must be obliged to pay a tax on kerosene; and instead of frequent flyer programs which incentivise air travel, fair and progressive levies on frequent flying must be put in place.

There is no technology to transition air travel to renewable energy but there is for ground transport. Now, with planes grounded around the world, it is our chance to foster alternatives to aviation like long-distance electric rail, night trains, sleeper coaches and ride-sharing communities.

It is clear that we need system change, not just individual change. But when nothing is being done about our most polluting form of transport, joining up these individual and collective actions can expose the aviation industry for what it is ‒ a profit-seeking, dirty player in the fossil fuel game. This growing movement is an important part of the climate movement more broadly. Supporting this movement will help us stay mobile and connected post-COVID-19, while also keeping the climate stable.

[Reprinted from the Global Ecosocialist Network. Annabel Smith is a Brisbane-based activist involved with the Stay Grounded Campaign.]

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