In part 1 of this blog, we looked at how the aviation sector contributes to climate change overall. In this second part, we look at the three main ways the aviation industry is flying under the radar when it comes to climate change.
First, the sector benefits from the publicity received by technological innovations and efficiency gains in aviation — this gives the perception that the corporations that build and operate aircraft, and the governments that regulate them, are taking the necessary steps to tackle the problem. While the idea of electric airplanes is pretty much a non-starter for commercial aviation, there are indeed some recent efficiency and technological gains made by aircraft manufacturers and airline companies. Notably, these include the growing use of biofuels, new lightweight materials being used on airplanes, and improvements in air traffic management (all of which help reduce emissions).
Combined with the rise of “offset” products, these innovations give the false impression that aviation emissions are under control. But nothing could be further from the truth. For instance, the sector’s target of 1.5% fuel efficiency improvements per year between 2009 and 2020 are clearly being overwhelmed by the annual growth in passenger demand, which has hovered at around 6% per year. Improvements in efficiency are certainly helpful, but they are simply not keeping up with the growing pace of emissions.
The second reason relates to problems with the IPCC reporting mechanisms for aviation emissions. Because of the international nature of aviation vis-a-vis the nation-based reporting to the IPCC, countries submit figures for domestic and international aviation separately. In part, this is borne of a methodological dispute over who ought to take the emissions burden in their national greenhouse gas (GHG) reports.
For instance, should emissions for an international flight be split 50/50 between the countries of departure and arrival? What if the majority of the flight occurs over one country, or if the majority of passengers are from another — should those countries report a higher share of the flight emissions? Or, should the emissions be attributed to the country where the airplane fuelled-up?
The problem with this dual-reporting mechanism is that emissions figures often end up being downplayed. For instance, a 2012 government report entitled Canada’s Action Plan to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Aviation claims that only around 5% of transport emissions (about 1% of national emissions) are due to aviation. But that figure only includes domestic aviation. A deeper dive into Canada’s National Inventory Report to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (hiding somewhere on page 88) shows that when international travel is included, aviation is actually responsible for 11% of transport sector emissions, or 2.7% of the country’s total emissions. In the end, the ability of aviation — like global shipping — to sneak out of national reporting has helped the sector fly under the radar at the national level, since domestically oriented policies try to identify and reduce GHG emissions from the most polluting sectors.
Finally, there’s CORSIA — the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation. This is the global aviation industry’s ambitious plan for addressing climate change. According to CORSIA, the aviation sector has less than a decade to cap and reduce its flight emissions to 2020 levels, and then by 2050 it aims to bring them down an additional 50% compared to 2005 levels. While that would indeed mark a substantial reduction, the likelihood of it being achieved is extremely low. So much of CORSIA relies on what it calls a “Global Market-Based Measure” (MBM) — essentially a global-scale carbon fee that most nations would have to agree to that would go towards offsetting the projected growth in international emissions relative to 2020.
Obviously, the plan to implement a global MBM is riddled with problems. Not only does it require the international community to co-operate on the implementation of new carbon pricing (a political policy wedge in countless industrialized nations today), but it also assumes problematically that carbon offsets work in the first place. As one expert explains, “offsetting is worse than doing nothing. It is without scientific legitimacy, is dangerously misleading, and almost certainly contributes to a net increase in the absolute rate of global emissions growth.”
Ultimately, like the publicity around new technologies in aviation efficiencies, CORSIA gives the impression that the problem is being addressed, when clearly it is getting worse. Even if the CORSIA plan reached its objectives of 50% of 2005 emissions by 2050, the sector would still be contributing about 857 Mt of CO2 by mid-century (about as much as Germany emits today) — meaning that the aviation sector alone would be eating up 12% of the global carbon budget for 1.5⁰ C of warming.
In the end, we are left with the classic challenge of trying to balance the benefits of global aviation (and I’ll be the first to admit there are many) with the extreme scale of damage caused by the industry. It’s hard to imagine giving up flying in this fast-paced, integrated, modern world. Perhaps a good starting point is to consider the merits of tackling growth in aviation, which ultimately means coming up with concrete ways to fly less overall.
Until the aviation industry is held to account for its contribution to climate change, the band-aid solutions of trying to minimize the impact of this booming sector will continue to allow it to fly under the radar.
Ryan Katz-Rosene is an Assistant Professor at the School of Political Studies, with affiliation to the Institute of Environment, and research interests in contemporary environmental debates. He is the president of the Environmental Studies Association of Canada, and a coordinator of the International Political Economy Network. Off campus he helps manage his family’s regenerative farm near Wakefield, Québec. Twitter @ryankatzrosene and web ryankatzrosene.ca