There was the briefest flurry of optimism at COP26 when — in the early hours of 10 November — the International Aviation Climate Ambition Coalition (IACAC) published a progressive series of commitments to decarbonise aviation. Hope was quickly dashed. We will come back to that shortly.
If aviation were a country, it would be the sixth-largest emitter falling between Russia and Japan, responsible for 3.5 percent of global emissions. The aviation industry has a strong sense of its importance, forgetting that the vast majority of the world’s population never flies. The headline figures are large. ICAO reports that the total number of passengers carried on scheduled services rose to 4.5 billion in 2019, which is 3.6 percent higher than in 2018. That is more than half the world’s population. These figures are based on passengers per flight; a change of planes and a return trip will rack up four flights. In 2003, 18 percent of Americans said that they had never flown; in 2012, 52 percent of Americans polled said they had flown in the previous year. Click for more statistics. In Britain, 70 percent of all flights were taken by 15 percent of adults; according to an analysis of a 2014 government survey, only 18 percent had flown long-haul. This explains why Air Passenger Duty in the UK was so easily imposed as a stealth tax.
In March 2020, the respected German consultancy Roland Berger forecast that if other industries decarbonise in line with current projections, aviation could account for up to 24 percent of global emissions by 2050 unless there is a significant technological shift. It is implausible that this would be acceptable with the world experiencing the catastrophic impacts of climate change. Domestic and international aviation emissions are the Achilles’ heel of the tourism industry. Aviation is essential to the tourism industry, particularly in many developing countries with limited opportunities for domestic tourism, and where the dependency on international arrivals for foreign exchange is already critically important.
The aviation industry objects that it takes time to develop new technology, and some are sceptical of hydrogen. They argue for “sticking plaster” approaches designed to ward off fuel taxes and permit business as usual. It does take time to develop new technology. That is reason to begin rather than to delay. Fortunately, Airbus is planning to have a hydrogen-powered plane in the air by 2035 and many companies are developing small battery and fuel cell-powered aircraft.
Change is coming. John Coplin, FRAE, Chief Designer of the RB211 aero-engine for Rolls Royce speaks with passion about why tourism matters and argues that the engineers need to be funded to make the transition to hydrogen. It needs to happen faster across the world in the next ten years. Click to watch the interview.
EasyJet is one of the airlines working with Airbus to make the transition. Jane Ashton, Sustainability Director at easyJet talks about the promise of hydrogen.
During COP26, overnight on 10 November, a spoof press release was published by IACAC detailing five significant commitments to reduce emissions by half by 2030, abandoning carbon offsetting and calling for the introduction of a minimum jet fuel tax of €0.33 per litre on flights between member states, with the revenue raised used for climate mitigation and adaptation in climate-vulnerable countries.
Sadly the official “inaugural meeting of the International Aviation Climate Ambition Coalition” at COP26 continued merely to champion the International Civil Aviation Organization’s framework to support the deployment of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) and the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) which they characterise as “an ambitious long-term aspirational goal” of net-zero by 2050. Climate Action Tracker has established that ICAO’s current basket of emissions mitigation measures for international aviation, notably CORSIA, is “critically insufficient” – the worst level – and only compatible with a 4°C+ world.
The travel and tourism industry needs to push the aviation sector to change more rapidly. There are major issues with all three parts of the ICAO strategy:
Carbon Offsetting: CORSIA
A report by the NewClimate Institute for the German Environment Agency in 2019 found that more than 80 percent of potential offset projects in four programs used by CORSIA were overstating their impact because they would have taken place whether the credits were sold or not. The ICAO later limited its eligible projects for the pilot phase to exclude those that started crediting before 2016. It also rejected several applications from offset programs that did not meet the standards of its technical advisers.
United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby, in a December 2020 LinkedIn post pledging to cut the company’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 said, “While they may offer customers some peace of mind, traditional carbon offsets do almost nothing to tackle the emissions from flying… And, more importantly, they simply don’t meet the scale of this global challenge.”
While some airlines are offsetting their emissions, most are relying on VCOs, Voluntary Carbon Offsets, where the consumer pays to offset the carbon emitted by planes that the industry has failed to deal with. Generally the “polluter pays principle” applies to producers, in aviation, this is palmed off on to the consumer who is not able to choose to fly other than in a plane which emits excessive amounts of carbon. Recent research has revealed how misleading VCOs are.
If offsets are tempting, look at the scientific arguments against them, called 10 myths about net-zero targets and carbon offsetting, busted.
SAF: Sustainable Aviation Fuels
There are basically three kinds of SAF; it suits the airlines wanting to pursue business as usual to lump them together, they are all “drop-in” fuels.
- SAFw is made from waste; it relies on large amounts of waste being available to make aviation fuel. It still puts greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
- SAFb is composed of biofuels — these inevitably compete with agriculture, pasture or fish production. This strategy prioritises aviation fuel over food and protein.
- SAFe power-to-liquid fuels (PtL) use of synfuels derived from hydrogen and captured carbon emissions could become a scalable option. Such synfuels require water, renewable electricity to produce hydrogen and CO2. Hydrogen can be used in fuel cells to produce electricity or combusted in engines.
The problem is that the pursuit of SAFw and SAFb delays the transition to decarbonised aviation –without large government research grants or taxation on aviation fuel, there is insufficient incentive to transition to decarbonised aviation. Click to read more.
In January, the Fuelling Flight Project — which includes easyJet, IAG, KLM and AirFrance — pointed to “the risk of massive capital investments in things that increase emissions, compared to fossil fuels and/or that become stranded assets”. The called-for “future proof sustainability requirements” are higher than the ones in the European Commission’s Renewable Energy Directive, including “clear exclusions of unsustainable feedstocks and pathways such as biofuels from dedicated cropland and PFAD [Palm Fatty Acid Distillate],” and asserted that: “Competition for limited resources, particularly in relation to international transport, will not solve the global climate challenge.”
As Bloomberg reported on 10 November: “SAF is typically three to four times more expensive than kerosene, so airlines aren’t buying it in bulk. As a result, very little is being produced. If Delta Air Lines Inc. filled all its planes for one day, the carrier would soak up a year’s worth of U.S. SAF supply,” said CEO Ed Bastian. Current production is estimated to be 0.1 percent of global jet fuel consumption.
The Bloomberg report points out that SAF spews carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the atmosphere. “The reductions claimed by biofuels rely on a lot of complicated math and the idea that the materials being burned don’t come from extracting fossil fuels sequestered thousands of years.” In March, a working paper published by the International Council on Clean Transportation suggested that “fuel derived from municipal solid waste with high plastic content can produce as much as almost twice the amount of CO₂ as burning regular jet fuel.” Jozsef Varadi, Chief Executive Officer of low-budget carrier Wizz Air Holdings Plc. has suggested that money spent on SAF would be better invested in hydrogen and electric propulsion.
“… the idea of net-zero has licensed a recklessly cavalier “burn now, pay later” approach which has seen carbon emissions continue to soar …. by 2009 it was becoming increasingly clear that it would not be possible to make even the gradual reductions that policymakers demanded. That was the case even if carbon capture and storage were up and running. The amount of carbon dioxide that was being pumped into the air each year meant humanity was rapidly running out of time.
Current net-zero policies will not keep warming to within 1.5°C because they were never intended to. They were and still are driven by a need to protect business as usual, not the climate. If we want to keep people safe then large and sustained cuts to carbon emissions need to happen now. That is the very simple acid test that must be applied to all climate policies. The time for wishful thinking is over.” Research scientists Dyke, Watson and Knorr
Business as usual does not meet the need for change. COP26 made no progress on aviation.
Delay only exacerbates the problem. It may well be necessary to think the unthinkable and cap airline operations. For more, please see the commentary by Chris Lyle, International Aviation Policy Consultant, who suggests how we might get the aviation industry to move away from fossil fuels – from ICAO to UNFCCC.