Environmental activists recoil for a reason when the super-rich fly private jets to forums that preach carbon neutrality. Airplane pollution levels really are going through the stratosphere and nobody seems to have a viable plan to rein them in.
While energy generation and agriculture currently dwarf aviation’s 1.3 percent share of all human-caused greenhouse gases, emissions from air travel are accelerating many times faster. That puts the industry on track to become the single biggest emitter of carbon dioxide within three decades if the predicted cuts in other sectors materialize, data and projections from UN agencies show.
The International Civil Aviation Organization recently moved to address the omission of airlines from the 2015 Paris climate accord by adopting self-policing guidelines that call for offsetting any carbon increases by planting trees or investing in cleaner technologies. Mandating direct cuts was deemed politically infeasible since it would have dented record demand for work and holiday travel, particularly in bustling Asian economies led by China and India.
The problem with such a model, green campaigners and analysts such as Andrew Murphy at Transport & Environment say, is that it’s already been tried and didn’t work. At least three European carriers—Austrian Airlines AG, EasyJet Plc and Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd.—have paid to have forests planted in poor countries far from their home markets only to see local authorities promptly cut them down.
“Offsetting was plagued by problems from the start and has run out of road as an acceptable climate measure,” Murphy said from Brussels, where his research group is based. “Governments need to recognize this and work on effective solutions like investing in new fuels and ending fuel-tax exemptions.”
A spokesman for ICAO said the carbon-offset plan was a welcome addition to other attempts to cut aviation emissions, adding the world was “decades away” from viable clean flying technologies.
“We are all going to have to reduce the extent to which we fly”
Airplane pollution, which has risen by about two-thirds since 2005, is forecast to jump as much as sevenfold by 2050 as incomes in developing economies advance, making flying more affordable for hundreds of millions if not billions of people, according to the Montreal-based ICAO. The International Air Transport Association, or IATA, the industry’s biggest trade group, expects the number of airline passengers to double by 2037, to more than 8 billion a year.
The surge in demand is swelling the global fleet of commercial passenger craft, which Boeing Co. sees doubling to 40,000 in the same period. The pool of private jets is increasing at a similar pace, with JetCraft, a market-intelligence firm, predicting a 50 percent gain within a decade, to 30,000 from 20,000.
Add cargo and military craft into the mix and total air traffic will probably grow 4.4 percent a year on average over the next two decades, requiring the overall addition of 37,000 new planes with a combined value of $5.8 trillion, according to Airbus SE, Boeing’s main competitor.
All of these forecasts are terrifying climate scientists and activists who say increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases are leading to rising temperatures, more extreme weather and higher death tolls from natural disasters caused at least in part by human activity.
“We are all going to have to reduce the extent to which we fly,” said Paul Fennell, a professor of clean energy at Imperial College London.
Fennel pointed to a paradox in the fight against aircraft pollution: one potential antidote, fuels made from biomass, can’t be produced in enough quantities to make a difference without creating new problems for the environment. There just isn’t enough non-food farmland to meet the demand for both biofuels and the trees and genetically modified crops that experts say are the best bet for large-scale carbon removal from atmosphere.
The sheer rise in passenger numbers has overwhelmed advances in ultra-light materials, engine efficiency and piloting, which have all reduced fuel waste. A move toward all-electric aircraft offers hope, but the technology is in its infancy and the weights of the kinds of batteries that are currently available—and affordable—are prohibitive for long-range travel.
Electric car makers like Elon Musk may be able to accommodate such mass in their designs—the battery pack in his Tesla Inc.’s five-seat Model S weighs more than half a ton—but kerosene and other liquid fuels offer airlines energy-to-weight ratios that are unlikely to be matched anytime soon.
The head of Airbus’s electrification lab, Glenn Llewellyn, said battery-powered planes may one day become common for taxi services and even short-haul flights, assuming consumers accept longer flying times. An emissions-free solution for long-haul flights, on the other hand, will likely remain elusive for decades to come.
“A breakthrough is needed in energy-storage,” Llewellyn said. “The other challenge is electromagnetic interference—we need to make sure the high-powered cables connecting batteries to engines don’t interfere with the electronics.”
That said, Airbus plans to begin commercial flights of the hybrid electric plane it’s developing with Siemens and Rolls-Royce by 2025. The first model, known as E-Fan X, is expected to emit substantially less pollution than current jets. IATA, which unites about 300 carriers, has said it expects fully electric planes to start entering regular commuter service in about 15 years.
International efforts to introduce binding emission caps for aviation, like shipping, have largely been abandoned, leaving each country to decide the rules for itself. The European Union tried to introduce a carbon-trading scheme for all airlines that use its airspace, but that effort was undermined by the U.S., which banned its airlines from participating.
Environmental groups say the guidelines the ICAO adopted in January are just another toothless attempt at self-regulation, since the UN body works hand-in-hand with the biggest companies in the industry. They say the money spent tracking and offsetting pollutants via tree-planting would be better invested in technologies that have the potential for greater impact.
Recent weather-linked catastrophes like droughts in India and wildfires in California have injected added urgency to the issue, with some shareholder activists accusing airlines of not being honest about pollution risks. The puzzle leaves politicians committed to climate goals like French President Emmanuel Macron with a thankless task: either upset consumers by making flying more expensive or demand deeper emission cuts from other parts of the economy.
The deadly “Yellow Vest” demonstrations that have gripped France for months offer a cautionary tale for authorities thinking about taxing airline emissions into submission. What started as a classic revolt over rising gasoline and diesel prices quickly morphed into nationwide protests against the wider tax burden being borne by the working and middle classes.
Rising incomes, mainly in Asia, and the proliferation of low-cost carriers everywhere has turned affordable air travel into almost a basic right that can’t be easily taxed without blowback from the public, according to Michael Stanat, director of global operations at New York-based SIS International Research.
“Holidays are becoming increasingly important because work is now 24/7 for many people,” Stanat said. “Airlines can push back by creating messaging to that effect to further boost consumer demand.”
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Photo Credit: A passenger aircraft takes off from London City Airport. Airline pollution and carbon emissions are hitting new heights. Chris Ratcliffe / Bloomberg