Activists and nonprofit organisations are up in arms over the fact that the UK aviation industry has pledged to cut its net carbon emissions to zero by 2050, while still planning to roll out 70% more flights over the next three decades.
This ambitious aim is mostly to accommodate the expanding middle class in their desire to explore beyond the borders they know – especially within the developing bloc of Brazil, Russia, India, and China. With rising income and cheaper airfares comes increased access to international travel, and boy does the aviation industry know it. In recent years international travel has simply exploded: in 2016, there were a whopping 3.8 billion air travelers, but the International Air Transport Association expects this will double by 2035 to 7.2 billion passengers.
But at the same time, members of the Sustainable Aviation coalition are signing an international commitment to reach net zero by 2050, with more than a third of the reduction in C02 emissions to be achieved through carbon offsetting on flights. The decarbonisation plan replaces a previous commitment that saw signatories commit to reducing future emissions to just half of what is currently emitted, and aims to do so through more efficient engine technology, smarter flight operations and better fuels. But no matter how efficient engine fuels can be, and no matter what routes airlines take, it simply won’t make up for the expected 70% growth in daily flights that industry anticipates over the next 30 years.
Without putting a cap on growth, how do they expect this will happen?
The science is very clear.
In 2018, commercial airlines burned 94 billion gallons of fossil fuel globally. Jet fuel produces around 21 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per gallon burned. The carbon intensity of flying an aeroplane is something that can no longer be debated. One round-trip flight between New York and California, for example, generates around 20 percent of the greenhouse gases that a car emits over an entire year. There are around 90,000 flights taking off a day in the U.S. alone. Need I go on?
When we found out eating red meat was perhaps the most carbon intensive human activity we could participate in, people began advocating that we eat less red meat. Why then, upon learning how carbon intensive flying is, are airlines and industry not advocating for less flights, and more efficient flights at that?
Oh, that’s right. Because money.
Signing this ‘net zero’ commitment is yet another empty promise from businesses, another sign of the greenwashing we have come to expect from industry in the increasingly capitalist world we live in. How do they anticipate doing this, beyond charging customers more per flight to offset their emissions (or perhaps by forcing them to do so), and as a result investing in the planting of more trees elsewhere?
We’re making progress environmentally-speaking in so many other ways. Green Monday is making an impact on how much meat we as a society eat, we are lucky enough to have private companies like Clearabee making private waste collection easier than ever, and the cost of solar panels and access to renewable energies is lessening each and every year. Bit by bit, reusable coffee mugs and water bottles are becoming more widely used, people are walking more than they used to, and schools worldwide are integrating sustainable development into their curriculum. Thanks to young heroes and activists like Time’s Person of The Year 2019 Greta Thunberg, we are slowly coming to understand as a global society that changes need to be made. Aviation is the next big focus – we need to do things differently, asap.
Signing this commitment is certainly a sign that at last the need for change has been recognised, but we need to ensure this recognition is accompanied by solid actionable goals to reduce the CO2 emissions that result from all this flying. The plan is to develop new tech, like biofuels and electric planes. And while these technologies are in the process of being developed, they are in no way at the stage of development where commercial airlines can begin rolling them out. I don’t anticipate that an electric plane will be capable of carrying a full flight of passengers overseas for another 10 years at least, and by then, we will be inching dangerously close to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change deadline for cutting net human carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions 45% by 2030, as well as cutting emissions further to net zero by 2050.
We need to take more drastic steps to reduce our carbon emissions, and by that I mean to say that we need to reduce the number of flights we take. Is the answer a global ‘one flight a week’ per person policy, akin to that of China’s one child policy? Or is the answer to tax airlines so heavily that they will once again become too expensive for the middle class to afford? Neither seems fair, but perhaps these are our best options.