Right now. At this very moment. At least half a million people are in the air.
If you fly frequently, and many of us do, then it is likely that taking an aircraft accounts for the majority of your personal carbon emissions. Despite this most of us are not willing (or able) to fly less without substantial sacrifice. This article attempts to provide an insight into the CO2 problem and who bears the cost.
So what is CO2 and why do we care? The atmosphere around the earth is made up of several greenhouse gases, CO2 being one of them. When functioning properly these greenhouse gases help to regulate the temperature and maintain a stable global environment. The trouble is that when we have excess greenhouse gases in the atmosphere too much heat becomes trapped and the planet begins to warm. The amount of CO2 which has been emitted in the past 30 years is more than the preceeding 10,000 years, and it’s not slowing down.
Aviation and CO2
Aviation is by far the mode of transport with the biggest climate impact, yet air travel is growing faster than every other sector. Since 1990 the aviation industry has transformed itself from a luxury pursuit to a common means of transport, with the abundance of low-cost carriers making it affordable to now travel the globe on any budget. Industry representatives like to regularly point out that emissions from aviation account for only 2% globally, but they conveniently miss out the rate at which this is increasing. A recent report to the European parliament warned that international aviation will account for almost a quarter of global emissions by 2050 if it continues on the current path. For the UK alone, projections have forecast that if the third runway at Heathrow goes ahead then aviation could consume as much as 70% of the national emissions budget of the UK by 2050.
At the turn of the millennium, less than 5% of the world’s population had ever sat in an aircraft.
The basic premise of ‘Carbon Offsetting’ involves spending money to make up for the negative effects of putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It is intended as a means by which we can ‘cancel out’ the harmful emissions, by supporting projects which produce ‘clean energy’ or reduce carbon emission in other ways.
However, the reality is that this is not the case. Offsetting schemes are usually outsourced to projects of the Global South. Projects which include buying or distributing climate-friendly cooking stoves to families in rural communities are common, as are tree planting and forest conservation schemes. The end result is that the minority of the population can continue to take more and more flights with a clear environmental conscience whilst others have to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
Yet these ‘others’ are people whose emissions are often already very low, whose historical contribution to climate change is negligible and who are often receiving the worst impacts of the climate crisis on their lives. The biggest problem is, that on balance, offsetting does not actually reduce emissions at all… the additional emissions in one place are at best balanced out by additional prevention of emissions elsewhere. The UN have reinterated several times that the status quo is not enough to avert a climate crisis. In fact, a recent scientific study highlighted that if we are to limit the average global temperature rise to less than two degrees, emissions from international aviation must, by 2030, be at least 39% lower than they were in 2005.
On top of this, Carbon Offsetting has its whole own share of other problems
Can you verify that the carbon savings you are paying for are genuinely additional savings, and would not have happened anyway? Even if you could, it is difficult to accurately estimate how much carbon any particular project will save and therefore how many tonnes your payment will curb. Carbon reductions from tree planting and forest conservation are particularly hard to confirm given scientific uncertainty. The whole approach is vulnerable to scams and there have been some serious cases of abuse. (link)
The carbon credit system itself stands for the emissions saved as a result of allegedly not performing an already planned activity. Thus, carbon credits always represent a saving by comparison with hypothetical future emissions. It is a premise that tonnes of CO2 would have been released in the absence of the project, or trees that would not have been planted if the offset project had not existed. This means it is impossible by definition to verify with certainty whether a carbon credit represents an additional emission reduction, because the supposed saving is based on a comparison with hypothetical emissions.
Aircraft are becoming steadily more fuel-efficient, but not fast enough to compensate for the global growth in flying. There is simply no prospect of fossil fuel-free passenger planes coming to market in the next 20 years.
This all sounds very gloomy, is there a solution?
At the moment the aviation industry is talking the talk and making promises of a carbon neutral future, but the gap between what is required and what is being delivered continues to widen. Whilst intrinsically flawed, at the moment, Carbon Offsetting is the best solution the industry has. It shouldn’t be relied upon and certainly shouldn’t be lauded as a resolution to the problem, but until a more favourable solution is presented it is all we have.
Sadly, carbon neutral growth simply doesn’t exist. If any quantum leaps are to occur in aviation technology, they will be decades from now. Given the urgency of addressing the climate crisis, relying on uncertain utopias as a substitute for actual emission cuts is far too risky. What is really needed is less air travel and not more.
The dream of decoupling endless growth from continuing consumption, greenhouse gas emissions and pollution will not come true. Instead of pseudo solutions and passing the responsibility onto the consumer, a tangible reduction of air travel is needed.
In 2016 the International Civil Aviation Agency (ICAO) adopted a worldwide climate strategy for the aviation industry. It was proclaimed as an opportunity to maintain the CO2 emissions from aviation fixed at a specific level, with any additional growth from this level being ‘offset’ through various schemes. The theory goes that this allows any further growth to be carbon-neutral. The project was titled CORSIA, (Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation) for more information about the strategy please read our side-article.
This is no easy undertaking.
How can we reverse the trend? The aviation industry will not forego their rising profits voluntarily. It has huge influence within policymaking institutions such as ICAO, and upon many governments. This is one of the reasons that plausible keys to the problem are often pushed to the side, such as: kerosene being taxed, industry subsidies be halted or an additional tax on frequent flyers. States, or alliances of states such as the EU, should not abdicate their responsibility to ICAO, an institution heavily influenced by corporate interests. It is therefore important to fight for additional, stricter rules governing national and international flights. Particular towards our own governments, upon which we have the greatest influence.
There is no doubt that any restrictions on aviation would be bet with firm condemnation from those in positions of power. Flying promises us speed, flexibility, freedom. A global and cool lifestyle with all the positive associations. To try and change this opinion and reverse the marketing messages pushed by the juggernaut of the industry seems futile for any one individual. It is essential that we join groups and networks which communicate the message that green aviation is an illusion and that any form of flying fast-tracks the climate crisis.
The goal must be that flying comes to be perceived as ‘uncool’; that more use is made of online conferencing; that slower modes of transport such as rail and sea become more commonplace again. The very precondition for increased alternatives needs to be put in place, and we should grasp any opportunities to praise substitute options. Aviation needs to decarbonise or slow its growth or both.
The purpose of this article is to prompt ever more individuals, movements and social groups to embark on this joint path in helping to bring about communal change. Exchanging experiences, showing solidarity, rendering support and undertaking joint activities are all essential.
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If you feel you simply have to fly….and you are looking for ways to offset the emissions from your flight, we have two ways to help.
Either book your flights through our flight booking system, and we will take care of offsetting the entire emissions of your flight for you.
Or follow this link for an FAQ and to read about carbon calculators. Remember – Carbon Offsetting is not the solution, but at the moment it’s the best we have.