The story at a glance
- Each year, the aviation industry creates as much carbon dioxide as Japan.
- In the past, companies and governments have offered carbon offsets and more renewable fuels as solutions to this problem.
- But experts warn that these interventions are not enough to meet the challenge and are urging the sector to start experimenting with new, more impactful technologies.
Each year, the aviation industry creates as much carbon dioxide as Japan, the world’s third largest economy.
And despite promises by some companies to go carbon neutral in the coming decades, experts warn that not enough is being done to tackle the industry’s toll on the planet.
Writing in the journal Nature, Steffen Kallbekken, research director for the Climate Economics group at the CICERO Center for International Climate Research in Norway, and David G. Victor, professor of innovation and public policy at the University of California, San Diego , explain why the sector needs a “radical overhaul”.
In recent years, countries have prioritized green alternative fuels for cars, trucks and other ground vehicles, while air transport technology remains entrenched in old patterns, they write.
“Flight emissions have increased by 2.5% each year for the past two decades. Over the next 30 years, the industry’s impact on global warming is expected to exceed that of its entire history, from the Wright brothers’ first flights in the early 1900s.”
Instead of focusing on cleaner forms of jet fuel and carbon offset plans, which disrupt current industry operations as little as possible, experts say the industry needs to be turned upside down to truly address the huge threat of climate change. Moreover, the longer this undertaking is postponed, the more difficult it will be to carry out.
They propose three steps to better address the climate impact of industry. The first is that industries and governments are becoming more aware that current interventions are not enough.
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Second, the authors argue for the formation of international coalitions of small groups willing to lead the industry in change. Although some groups already exist, they focus too much on fuel replacements, the authors said, emphasizing the need for a more diverse experimental approach.
Alternative interventions could include a better understanding of the routes best suited to the climate, with fewer delays and shorter distances travelled.
Finally, more research is needed to understand all of the impacts of the aviation industry on climate change, aside from fuel consumption and carbon emissions.
“It all sounds complicated. Yet that is exactly how technological revolutions have happened in many industries, including the government-industry partnerships that created the age of jet aircraft,” they wrote.
“It’s also how other high-polluting industries are responding to the climate crisis – for example, to decarbonize steel, cement and cars and to redesign nuclear reactors.”
Why the status quo is not enough to fight climate change
Carbon offsets have drawn skepticism in the past, while critics argue the practice trades a known amount of emissions with an uncertain amount of reductions.
For example, companies could claim to offset their carbon emissions through land restoration efforts or tree planting. But it’s unclear whether these specific actions actually offset the amount of pollution generated, as some companies assume that the trees they protect wouldn’t exist in those areas in the absence of the company’s protection.
In other words, “the size of the offset requires estimating the warming pollution fluxes that would have occurred if the carbon removal project had not existed, and comparing them to the fluxes with the project in place. “, said the authors.
Meanwhile, producing clean, affordable forms of jet fuel on an efficient scale may prove impossible, Kallbekken and Victor wrote.
The number of regulations, both national and international, that govern the aviation industry is also an obstacle to any widespread and immediate change.
Experimenting and testing a wide range of ideas is what it takes, the authors wrote. Although some research into new advances is underway, governments and businesses need to do more, and “to begin with will also need to understand how uncertainties in climate science and technology affect emission control strategies.”
In their article, the experts criticize the prioritization of industry interests over reality and point out that it is still unclear how companies will achieve net carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, given the limits carbon offsetting and cleaner fuels.
But the authors acknowledge that the industry may be reluctant to radical change because it operates on such thin margins.
“A growing number of airlines want to do something for the climate but are stuck with few practical options,” Victor said in a press release.
Although the shift in demand from air travel, especially for short flights, to more efficient rail travel may help reduce dependence on aviation, the mode of transport remains the first choice for travel. long distance.
Carbon offsets and greener fuel also only address two ways in which aviation affects the climate, while the other impacts of air travel remain unknown.
“High temperatures in engines also produce nitrogen oxides and release aerosols that change the composition of the atmosphere. The combustion of hydrocarbons generates water vapor which, when mixed with aerosols, produces contrails of condensation,” the authors explained.
Some estimates suggest that the clouds formed by these contrails could be a significant part of the aviation sector’s contribution to climate change. If so, carbon offsets and greener fuels will not completely solve the problem.
These unknowns make it difficult for businesses and governments to invest in the right interventions that will deliver impactful results down the line.
“If trailing cirrus clouds turn out to be a major problem, then the solutions will have to go far beyond clean fuels – to different propulsion systems and even aircraft rerouting.”
The International Civil Aviation Organization is due to meet in Montreal, Canada, from September 27 to October 7, 2022. At the meeting, representatives from 193 countries are expected to negotiate an industry-wide goal to reduce sector emissions.