The aviation industry ‘has judged itself too important to make its full contribution’ to the Paris Agreement on climate change. Instead, it’s relying on every other industry to cut their emissions, according to the highly respected Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. Now, the UN’s International Civil Aviation Authority (ICAO) has struck a global deal that depends on carbon ‘offsetting’ schemes, like tree planting, for answers to the industry’s growing emissions. The industry’s own research admits that the promised land of aviation biofuels is way over the horizon.
The Tyndall Centre study shows that the aviation industry’s current growth is incompatible with the Paris Agreement to avoid dangerous climate change. There’s no evidence that flying can deliver the rapid and deep cuts in carbon emissions required to hold global warming below 2°C. Even the most optimistic uptake of the most promising technologies, like biofuels, won’t cut the mustard.
No major aviation infrastructure project, not even Heathrow, can escape these stark conclusions. The evidence holds true even with the hefty assumption that other industries could shoulder additional cuts to compensate for the aviation sector doing less. It’s not what the Heathrow hub lobby wants to hear, nor Unite or other unions that support it, with a seeming lack of balance between the jobs and economic gains with the environmental impacts. Unite4Heathrow makes no apparent acknowledgement of the dangers of climate change. Yet Londoners also live on a warming planet. This from the Evening Standard (8 May 2016):
Puzzled Londoners told of their disbelief after streets were swamped with “deep” water from the River Thames on the hottest day in the capital this year.
As the Tyndall Centre argues, ‘aviation demand in every country will need to be constrained if the global community is not to renege on its 2°C commitments.’
Aviation’s carbon emissions are forecast to rise steeply through to 2050 (see graph: rising/red lines), but globally, deep cuts in carbon emissions are required (blue/ lower lines): from Tyndall Centre report.
Nor will ‘green billionaires’ like Richard Branson save us. As Naomi Klein points out in This Changes Everything, Branson promised to invest $3 billion to develop biofuels for the Virgin Group as an alternative to oil and gas. But ‘seven years into the 10-year pledge, we are still looking at well under $300 million’ with no real progress on alternatives airplane fuels in sight.
The Tyndall report shows that many nations, notably China, have rapidly growing aviation sectors. ‘As it stands, there is a significant risk that current expansion plans will extend the flying practices of today’s frequent fliers both within wealthier nations, and to and within emerging economies. Such a prospect plays against the international community’s commitments to mitigate emissions in line with 2°C.’
There are few signs that the aviation sector takes the 2°C limit seriously. While the industry has set out proposals for carbon neutral growth from 2020 and to reduce the sector’s emissions by 50% by 2050, there is little evidence to demonstrate that this is at all feasible, even with a price on carbon emissions.
It’s clearly tough enough for any industrial sector to reduce their own emissions in line with avoiding 2°C of global warming. So any assumption that other industries will be in a position to make much greater cuts than aviation misunderstands the scale of the challenge, the study says.
Consequently, if the aviation sector is to reduce emissions in line with the 2°C commitment, it must acknowledge the veracity of the climate challenge, and take responsibility to manage its own demand in accord with the necessary levels of mitigation. Yet the International Civil Aviation Authority is predicting a significant and on-going rise in emissions, whilst at the same time continuing to emphasise the industry’s commitment to a sustainable future.
‘Aviation has thus far failed to develop a scientifically credible emission pathway towards a 2°C future. If such a pathway is not forthcoming in the next few years, it will be evident that the sector either rejects the international community’s 2°C commitment, or has judged itself too important to make its full contribution, relying instead on the untenable assumption that other sectors will compensate.’
The aviation industry cannot be isolated from the dialogue on climate change, and as a mature industry it is incumbent on it to be clear as to its position on 2°C, carbon budgets and the mitigation challenge.
As the Campaign Against Climate Change says: A new runway at Heathrow without climate change? Dream on.