Sustainability Climate Change

Experts call for overhaul of aviation industry’s response to climate change

“Over the next 30 years, the industry’s impact on global warming is set to exceed that of its whole history, since the Wright brothers’ first flights in the early 1900s.”

Story at a glance

  • Each year, the aviation industry creates as much carbon dioxide as Japan.

  • In the past, both companies and governments have proposed carbon offsets and more renewable fuels as solutions to this problem.

  • But experts warn these interventions are not nearly enough to meet the challenge and urge the sector to begin experimenting with new, more impactful technologies. 

Each year, the aviation industry creates as much carbon dioxide as Japan, the world’s third largest economy. 

And despite some companies’ pledges to transition to carbon neutrality in the coming decades, experts warn not nearly enough is being done to combat the industry’s toll on the planet.

Writing in the journal Nature, Steffen Kallbekken, research director for the Climate Economics group at the CICERO Center for International Climate Research in Norway, and David G. Victor, professor of innovation and public policy at the University of California, San Diego, explain why the sector is in need of a “radical redesign.”

In recent years, countries have prioritized green fuel alternatives for cars, trucks and other land-based vehicles, while air transportation technology remains rooted in old patterns, they write. 

“Emissions from flights have risen by 2.5 percent each year for the past two decades. Over the next 30 years, the industry’s impact on global warming is set to exceed that of its whole history, since the Wright brothers’ first flights in the early 1900s.”

Instead of focusing on cleaner forms of jet fuel and carbon offset plans, which are minimally disruptive to the industry’s current operations, experts argue the industry needs to be upended to truly meet the immense threat of climate change. Furthermore, the longer this undertaking is put off, the harder it will be to complete.

They offer three steps for better addressing the industry’s climate impact. The first is for industries and governments to become more self-aware that current interventions are not sufficient.

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Second, authors argue for the formation of international coalitions of small groups willing to lead the industry in the shift. Although some groups do already exist, they are too focused on fuel replacements, authors said, highlighting the need for a more diverse experimental approach. 

Alternative interventions could include increased understanding of which routes are best for the climate, complete with fewer delays and shorter distances covered. 

Finally, more research is needed to understand the full impacts of the aviation industry on climate change, apart from fuel use and carbon emissions.

“This all sounds complicated. Yet it is exactly how technological revolutions have occurred in many industries, including the government–industry partnerships that created the age of jet aircraft,” they wrote. 

“It is also how other high-polluting industries are responding to the climate crisis — for example, to decarbonize steel, cement and cars and to redesign nuclear reactors.”

Why the status quo isn’t enough for tackling climate change

Carbon offsets have garnered skepticism in the past, while critics argue the practice trades a known amount of emissions with an uncertain amount of reductions

For example, companies could claim to offset their carbon emissions through land restoration efforts or the planting of trees. But whether these specific actions actually make up for the amount of pollution generated is not well understood, as some companies assume the trees they protect would not exist in those areas in the absence of the company’s protection.  

Put differently, “the size of the offset requires estimating flows of warming pollution that would have occurred if the carbon-removal project hadn’t existed, and comparing them against flows with the project in place,” authors said.

Meanwhile, producing clean and affordable forms of jet fuel at an efficient scale could prove impossible, Kallbekken and Victor wrote.

The number of regulations, both national and international, that govern the aviation industry also poses a barrier to any widespread, immediate change. 

Experimentation and testing a wide range of ideas is what’s needed, authors wrote. Although some research on new advancements is underway, governments and companies must do more, and “getting started will also require understanding how uncertainties in climate science and technology affect emission control strategies.” 

In their piece, experts criticize the prioritizing of industry interests over reality and point out it remains unknown how companies will achieve net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, given the limitations of carbon offsetting and cleaner fuels.

But authors do acknowledge the industry may be reluctant to sweeping changes because they operate on such razor thin margins. 

“A growing number of airlines want to do something about climate but are stuck with few practical options,” Victor said in a press release.

Although shifting demand away from air travel, especially for short flights, and toward more efficient rail travel could help reduce reliance on aviation, the mode of transportation remains the top choice for long-distance travel.

Carbon offsets and greener fuel also only address two ways aviation affects the climate, while other impacts of air travel remain unknown.

“High temperatures in engines also produce nitrogen oxides, and they release aerosols that alter the composition of the atmosphere. Burning hydrocarbons generates water vapor that, by mingling with aerosols, produces contrails,” authors explained. 

Some estimates suggest clouds formed by these contrails may account for a significant chunk of the aviation sector’s contribution to climate change. If this is the case, carbon offsets and greener fuel will not fully address the problem. 

These unknowns make it difficult for companies and governments to invest in the right interventions that will yield impactful results down the line. 

“If contrail cirrus proves to be a major problem, then solutions will need to go well beyond clean fuels — to different propulsion systems and even rerouting aircraft.”

The International Civil Aviation Organization is scheduled to convene in Montreal, Canada, from Sept. 27 to Oct. 7, 2022. At the meeting, representatives from 193 countries are expected to negotiate an industry-wide target for cutting the sector’s emissions.