Stop greenwashing of aviation: 1. efficiency improvements

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Posted Nov 4 2021 by Magdalena Heuwieser of Stay Grounded
Stop greenwashing of aviation: 1. efficiency

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. 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.

Number 2 is about electric flight; no. 3 is about hydrogen-powered flight.

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.

Efficiency improvements

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]

Stop greenwashing of aviation: 1. efficiency

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.