The Illusion of Green Flying

A new report shows that the aviation industry’s claims of ‘green growth’ are illusory. Biofuels to replace conventional kerosene, schemes purporting to ‘offset’ emissions and ‘green’ airports all fail to curb growing climate change impacts.

Climate damaging greenhouse gas emissions from aviation, the most carbon intensive form of transport, are rising rapidly. Under current growth projections, with construction of new airports, expansion of established airports, expansion of the aircraft fleet and anticipated increase in the number of air passengers and flights, aviation’s emissions are anticipated to increase between four- to eight-fold by 2050. The aviation industry, led by ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) promotes an image of ‘green’ growth Illusion green flyingthrough technological innovation, new fuels and offset schemes which purport to compensate for increasing aviation emissions through support for reductions in other sectors.

A new report, The Illusion of Green Flying published by Finance and Trade Watch, analyzes and debunks these aviation industry’s claims of ‘green’ growth. Illustrating the expected trajectory of aviation growth, the report begins with a map showing the 423 new airports that, according to aviation industry consultancy CAPA (Centre for Aviation), are planned and under construction, along with an estimated 121 additional runways.

The report shows that the minor efficiency gains and emissions reductions will barely scratch the surface of the massive increase in emissions that is looming with the projected aviation growth rate. A drive to replace conventional petroleum-derived aviation fuel with biofuels threatens to fill up plane’s fuel tanks with much needed food crops, not as yet nonviable biofuels derived from non-food sources such as algae. In addition, aviation biofuels are not climate-friendly as the total emissions, once the supply chain from cultivation, processing and transportation is factored in, can be even higher than from oil-based aviation kerosene.

Avoiding taking measures to reduce emissions, the aviation industry pursues offsetting schemes which merely provide a license to pollute, effectively attempting to outsource its emissions to other industries. Land based offset projects involving forests are particularly problematic as carbon storage in forests over long term periods cannot be reassured and, as the main agents of large-scale deforestation continue to wreak destruction, access to forests is restricted for people depending upon it for their livelihoods. Schemes to offset biodiversity proceed on the erroneous assumption that destruction of a unique, complex habitat can be compensated for by nature protection in a different location. Airports are promoted as ‘green’ or ‘carbon neutral’ by means of accreditation schemes that incorporate measures such as more energy-efficient airport operations and carbon offsets. These schemes, heavily promoted to air passengers, conveniently exclude and detract attention from the 95% of emissions which result from the actual flights.

The report also considers other aviation issues. A raft of subsidies (such as fuel tax exemptions and subsidies to aircraft manufacturers and airlines) makes flying artificially cheap. Aviation has non-CO2 impacts such as aircraft noise and emissions of particulates, which have serious negative health impacts on people living under flightpaths. The inequities of flying are considered; only a small minority of the global population ever set foot on a plane and wealthy people take the vast majority of flights. Resistance against airport expansion is vital to prevent inflated projections of aviation growth, used by the industry in lobbying for government support for expansion, becoming a reality. An ‘infrastructural lock-in’ is looming. Once airports are built or expanded there is tremendous pressure to utilize these emissions intensive facilities, with yet more subsidies and legislative support to support its passenger and cargo throughput projections and ensure economic viability.

Tackling aviation growth requires systemic change of the global economic system, a just transition from fossil fuel dependency, cultural transformation and individual commitment to reduce high-carbon lifestyles. All over the world there is opposition to aviation growth and the report concludes with some ‘resistance highlights’, local campaigns in many countries including France, Mexico, Turkey and Indonesia, and organizations working on relevant issues including biofuels, combating deforestation and promoting train travel as a more sustainable alternative to flying. There is also an Executive Summary outlining the main points of the full report.

 

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