Over the next five weeks we’ll be publishing a range of Stay Grounded factsheets about various kinds of techno-greenwashing provided by the aviation industry. We’d like to help expose the greenwashing of the aviation industry. First up – efficiency improvements: the lie that aviation can become carbon-neutral via ever-greater aircraft efficiency, reducing the need for fossil fuels. Any gains will be wiped out several times over by the growth in air traffic.
Here’s the series:
- Efficiency improvements
- Electric flight
- Hydrogen-powered flight
- Synthetic electro-fuels (e-fuels)
As climate demands are raised, the aviation sector is redoubling its greenwashing efforts, pointing to improbable technological step-changes for ‘greener’ flights. The global Stay Grounded network, together with other civil society organisations, warns that trusting yet-to-be-developed technology to reduce climate pollution is extremely risky, and instead demands that immediate action be taken now to prevent expansion of the aviation sector and associated emissions growth.
“The aviation industry is trying everything to legitimise its plan to jump straight back to pre-Covid growth rates. With their greenwashing agenda, lobbyists are successfully diverting attention from the paramount need to reduce flights”, explains Magdalena Heuwieser, spokesperson at Stay Grounded.
Aircraft efficiency refers to the amount of fuel burned (and emissions produced) by an aircraft in order to transport its payload (passengers or cargo) a given distance (e.g. one kilometer). Efficiency improvements (i.e. reductions in fuel burn) are achieved by optimising the design of the aircraft, the engines, the airline operations (e.g. the flightpath) and by increasing the amount of passengers/cargo carried onboard the aircraft.
CO2/passenger-km is proportional to efficiency (fuel/passenger-km).
|WHAT THE AVIATION INDUSTRY TELLS YOU||WHAT THEY DON’T TELL YOU|
|Flying can be decarbonised by improving aircraft efficiency.||History shows us that “efficiency improvements” have always been accompanied by increased emissions! This is because efficiency improvements also reduce the cost of flying and contribute to air traffic growth, leading to emissions growth which far outpaces the emissions reductions|
of efficiency gains.
|Supporting aircraft technology development and air traffic optimisation will have a beneficial environmental impact.||Emissions reductions through efficiency gains can also be cancelled out by airlines upgrading the class of seats, and by flying further or faster.|
|Therefore: financial restrictions on airlines such as increased pricing or fuel taxes shouldn’t be imposed, as this will reduce profit available to invest in new technologies and processes.||Therefore: we need further measures to limit emissions such as increased pricing or fuel taxes to incentivise less fuel burned. Such policies will actually accelerate efficiency improvements.|
Efficiency does not “decarbonise” aviation
A common industry misconception is that flying can be decarbonised by making aircraft more efficient every year, often expressed in misleading statements such as: “since the advent of jet technology, carbon-dioxide emissions from aviation have reduced by 80%”.
It’s correct that these improvements have resulted in emissions reductions per passenger-km flown. Coupled with tax breaks and subsidies, and increasing purchasing power of the global population, this has resulted in a rapid growth of air traffic (doubling every 15 years) and of CO2 emissions that has far outstripped the efficiency savings. [see infographic]
As aircraft efficiency improves, some airlines simultaneously reduce their per seat efficiency by increasing the number of more profitable business or first class seats. They also fly further (ultra long-haul) which burns more fuel, even in efficient aircraft. A new generation of supersonic aircraft are also being developed that would require up to nine times more energy per passenger-km than subsonic aircraft. Private/business jet use has also been increasing; they are 5-14 times more polluting than commercial aircraft due to low passenger density or higher flight speeds.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Airbus had projected that air traffic would double again by the mid-2030s and then again by 2050. This would amount to an 8-times increase from year 2000 levels, i.e. an average growth of 4.2% per year. Despite the slump in air traffic due to COVID-19, the industry still predicts growth rates of about 4% per year beyond 2024 until 2038.
The earth’s atmosphere isn’t affected by emissions per passenger-km, but instead by total emissions produced. This has been rapidly increasing, rather than decreasing.
In a poorly-regulated industry, efficiency improvements may facilitate market growth and increase total emissions, not reduce them. This is known as Jevon’s Paradox. Thus, efficiency gains alone cannot be relied upon to decarbonise the industry – we also need regulations to limit air traffic.
A method of limiting aviation emissions would be to increase the cost of jet fuel in order to incentivise reduced consumption. Additionally, a frequent flyer levy or air miles levy could incentivise people to fly less. There are historic examples of jet fuel price increases: e.g. the OPEC oil crisis in the 1970s-80s, during which it was seen that aircraft technology development actually accelerated, as there was a larger incentive to reduce fuel burn (e.g. flight testing of “Open Rotor” concepts). These designs were shelved when the oil price decreased again in the 1990s and are yet to re-emerge due to low fuel prices. This example demonstrates that reality does not match the narrative presented to us by airlines and the aviation industry. Financial restrictions on airlines such as increased pricing or fuel taxes wouldn’t reduce spending on new technologies and processes as claimed by airlines; rather, they would increase the industry’s desire to chase greater efficiency improvements.
The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's
annbeirneanimalwhisperert November 4th, 2021
Agree with everything said here. internal flights should be stopped all together. Johnson proved the emptiness of his words at cop26 by flying back to England from Scotland not acceptable on any level
Steve Gwynne November 4th, 2021
Price increases may also incentivise energy substitution towards CO2 absorption like the
Drop-in Fuels from Sunlight and Air
I don’t have the knowledge to know if the Fischer-Tropsch process has a lower overall impact but it does highlight how price can be deployed to incentivise alternatives.
Dave Darby November 4th, 2021
Ah, Steve, more difficult homework.
I dunno. These kinds of solutions don’t thrill me, if I’m honest. There’ll be other problems associated with it (there always are). Techno-solutions always seem to be part of a programme that desperately wants to keep the status quo. And can it be owned by communities, rather than the corporate sector? We’ll see, I guess. It’s what Stay Grounded are saying in this series of factsheets, and their campaigns. It’s so easy to use technology for greenwash, it may not work, it may cause more problems than it solves, and it may contribute to even more wealth concentration. I’d rather see a very different future, where young people travel overland until they’ve seen enough, and then settle in much more self-reliant communities (they may be needed in the near future), where they get many more of the essentials of life than they do in the West now, and don’t feel the need to fly any more. And where we aren’t flying and shipping goods around the world anywhere near as much as we are now.
Hilary Jones November 4th, 2021
Me and my partner had a wonderful journey to the Czech Republic by train. It was so beautiful! The river Vltava, the forest of Maszaryk and its mountains;Prague looking as if Mozart would be back shortly- we’d have seen none of this from a ‘plane. No waiting about in airports being spied upon. Only thing: we could have got a flight much more cheaply.
PS This was not a holiday but a visit connected with agriculture. But we did manage to see a real Rubens from close to, and to visit the Janacek house, with the studios he endowed- some young people were carrying stuff in for a forthcoming performance. I’ve understood Czech music so much better from having seen that river. So travel still broadens the mind; but no need to cause terrible damage in the process.
Andrew Rollinson November 5th, 2021
Dear…Dave? or Stay Grounded?
This year I wrote a technical briefing on alternative aviation fuels. It covers Fisher Tropsch, and points to aviation greenwash. It is here:
I’ve never heard of Stay Grounded, and I’m interested to see what the other blogs in this series cover. I’m interested to see whether they concur with my findings on the money going to fund research into jet fuels from waste.
Dave Darby November 5th, 2021
Andrew – very interesting. Quick summary? In your opinion, do we need to reduce air traffic drastically, or are there techno-fixes?
Dave Darby November 5th, 2021
Hilary – “Only thing: we could have got a flight much more cheaply.”
In this twisted economy, the more damaging / cruel / exploitative or just generally shit something is, the cheaper it is – including flying, sweatshop-produced goods, pesticide-grown food, battery eggs, toxic paints etc. etc.
Andrew Rollinson November 12th, 2021
Plastic/waste derived aviation fuel is not a techno-fix.
Dave Darby November 12th, 2021
Andrew – sure, I guess ‘fix’ suggests that technology might actually fix the problem of aviation’s growing contribution to climate change. I can’t see any technology doing that – not in any useful timeframe – can you?