The aviation industry must review its response to climate change

Aviation’s growing impact on the climate crisis requires radical solutions that could disrupt the industry, says a new Nature commentary article from the School of Global Politics and Strategy at the University of California, San Diego.

Globally, industry generates approximately 1 billion tonnes of CO2 per year, which is comparable to Japan, the world’s third largest economy. In addition, flight emissions are increasing by approximately 2.5% each year. Without bold solutions, the industry is on track to produce more CO over the next 30 years.2 than that of its entire history.

While renewables have grown to replace fossil fuels in power generation and the supply and demand for electric vehicles continues to grow, no carbon-free replacement technologies exist on the scale adequate to combat against aircraft pollution.

“Most of the strategies that governments and businesses pursue today rely on familiar technologies. This approach seems short-sighted because many of these technologies don’t work at scale,” said co-author David Victor, Professor of Innovation and Public Policy at UC San Diego School of Co-Director of Global Policy and Strategy for the Deep Decarbonization Initiative. “Eliminating the impact of aviation on global warming requires major disruptions to the current functioning of the industry. The longer this reality is eluded, the more difficult it will be to find effective solutions.”

The Nature article comes ahead of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) assembly in Montreal, Canada, September 27-October 7, where representatives from 193 countries will attempt to negotiate a world-wide goal. industry to reduce emissions from the sector. .

Victor and co-author Steffen Kallbekken from the Center for International Climate Research explain why the two most commonly proposed solutions – cleaner fuels and carbon offsetting – that will likely be discussed at the meeting are woefully inadequate.

Carbon offsetting is a reduction or removal of greenhouse gas emissions (for example, through land restoration or tree planting) that is used to offset emissions occurring elsewhere. According to the authors, the track record of reliable accounting in these industries is poor.

“Even with oversight, forestry projects are often plagued by outlandish assumptions, such as that trees would disappear from these areas in the absence of the projects,” they write.

On the other hand, cleaner aviation fuel, which currently comes from conventional biofuel feedstocks such as vegetable oils, may be impossible to produce sustainably in sufficient volumes and at low enough prices to replace all the jet fuel. Reaching the levels of clean fuel adoption that many governments and businesses are aiming for – and doing so in a sustainable way – will require commercializing new production methods and feedstocks that are still in their technological infancy.

And neither solution is sure to address the climate impacts of contrails, which trap heat radiating from the earth’s surface, causing the atmosphere below to heat up.

Solutions must be designed to disrupt

In fact, the warming effects of contrails are still poorly understood by climatologists and therefore little considered by industry and governments working on decarbonizing aviation. It is possible that the effects are small and can be largely managed by redirecting aircraft around weather conditions that generate the worst contrails. But the effects could also be massive – up to half of aviation’s total climate impact, according to some studies – and require entirely new aviation technologies and approaches to reduce aviation’s climate impact. .

The study argues that tackling contrails may require a major overhaul of engines, airframes and onboard storage – big, costly and financially risky decisions. The authors urge more experimentation to test what might really work – supported by government policies and industry collaborations.

“Resistance to disruptive industry status quo efforts is understandable as airlines often operate on extremely thin margins,” added Victor. “A growing number of airlines want to do something for the climate but are stuck with few practical options.”

Victor and Kallbekken recommend three steps for industry to create bold solutions to global warming.

First, industry and government need to do their homework. They need to become more aware of the risks associated with the current approach to aviation’s role in the climate crisis.

Second, small collaborations between governments and the most motivated companies could be formed to take risks on new technologies, which could, in turn, inspire others to follow their example. For example, a partnership between the Norwegian government and companies is underway to create a test bed for electric planes.

The authors offer concrete strategies on how further collaborations could be established to potentially trigger further advances. For example, these groups, sharing costs and risks, could invest in more varied response strategies, including hydrogen, electricity, and a cleaner, more scalable version of sustainable aviation fuel. They expect Europe to take the lead, because European governments are already highly motivated to take the climate issue seriously.

Finally, the authors emphasize how essential research is to better understand contrails and chemical interactions in the atmosphere. It could also provide technological, economic and political solutions.