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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Stay Grounded video: Global resistance to aviation expansion

Resistance to aviation expansion and new airport projects is rising worldwide. This video of actions to highlight the damage to people and the environment – in the UK, Germany, Austria, Turkey, France and Mexico  – was compiled by Austria based NGO System Change, Not Climate Change. It marks a wave of global action, under the banner ‘Stay Grounded: Aviation Growth Cancelled Due to Climate Change!’

Drawing attention to aviation’s contribution to climate change is timely. Publication of the video coincides with a meeting of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in Montreal, Canada, which agreed a deal which purports to curb aviation’s emissions of climate change causing greenhouse gas emissions. This is urgently needed as the aviation sector is one of the fastest rising sources of emissions. But, under the deal, airlines will not face a cap or charge on their emissions. Instead, offset schemes will enable airlines to pay for carbon reducing activities such as forested area and emissions cuts in other industries. Aviation growth will continue and the deal will do little to reduce emissions. The aviation industry is not committed to aligning its long term targets with the 1.5°C – 2°C temperature increase limits of the Paris agreement on climate change, which has now come into force as it has been ratified by a sufficient number of countries.

The Stay Grounded actions around the world conveyed serious messages of the damage of aviation expansion with energy and humour. In France an unnecessary new airport in Nantes threatens to destroy farmland, forest and biodiverse wetlands. Farmers and activists have resisted the project for 40 years. The 4,000 acre site is protected by the ZAD (Zone a Défendre) community, which may be facing imminent forced eviction and has issued a callout for support. The video shows a massive march, dancing and dozens of carpenters working together to construct a building to form the base for resistance to eviction.

In Turkey, North Forest Defence has held a great many protests against destruction of forests, lakes, farmland and coastline for Istanbul’s third airport. Every day thousands of trucks move earth for preparation of the construction site. In Germany, campaigners hold demonstrations in Frankfurt Airport terminal every Monday to protest against expansion of the airport. A fourth runway opened in 2011 and construction of a third terminal began in October 2015. A planned new Mexico City mega-airport on the site of Lake Texcoco would lead to water shortages and a devastating impact on farming. Farmers have resisted an airport in the area since 2001, and suffered state oppression and violence. There was a protest on affected farmland and an academic forum and study visit. Campaigners opposing a third runway at Vienna Airport dropped a banner from a bridge over a highway, held a massive bicycle rally (one of the tandems is towing a piano), and there was a performance by a breakdancing polar bear.

A third runway is planned at London’s Heathrow Airport, where the Stay Grounded action included a critical mass bike block and flash mob and ‘die-in’ in Terminal 2. A privileged elite take the majority of flights and a frequent flyers’ check-in, with activists playing privileged passengers climbing over protesters, highlighted the inequities of aviation growth. Uzma Malik, an activist from Reclaim the Power, reflects on the protest, outlining some of the loopholes in the ICAO deal and details of the action such as the reading out of testimonies from people living on Pacific islands and in Africa whose lives are already being devastated by climate change.

Also in the UK, Gatwick Airport is planning a second runway. Stay Grounded protest took the form of a picnic in the terminal, accompanied by a bagpipe player. Below is just one example of the great photos taken by Rob Basto.

gatwick-picnic

no-pickering-airport

In Montreal, a press action was held outside ICAO headquarters by the People’s Coalition for Responsible Civil Aviation, drew attention to the greenwashing of the ICAO climate deal.

Also from Canada, a fantastic solidarity message from Land over Landings, a group which has resisting an unnecessary third Toronto airport on prime quality farmland in Pickering for over 40 years.

The ‘Stay Grounded’ global wave of action against airport expansion shows that local campaign groups around the world are linking up. Resistance against aviation expansion is gathering momentum. Connections and solidarity between groups resisting airport projects that damage local environments and communities – causing air pollution and loss of farmland and biodiversity – are strengthening. Building on this international solidarity is vital to tackling the global issue of aviation’s contribution to climate change.