The most damaging way to travel

Flying from Paris to New York return has the same global warming impact as eating red meat for six years. Carbon emissions from aviation have more than doubled in the last 20 years – growing over 6% in Europe last year alone. On top of that, new research shows that the effects of other non-CO2 emissions from jet engines – NOx, water vapour and particles – have at least as large a climate impact every day as all the accumulated CO2 from flight. In short, the growing impact of flying on our climate is undoing the efforts of other sectors to decarbonise.

So what’s to be done? Europe has long tried to limit the impact of flying in its territory by putting a price on carbon. But until last year the EU emissions trading system (ETS) exempted flights to and from Europe. Now, at T&E’s urging, European policymakers have agreed to limit this exemption until 2024. They also decided to start reducing the cap on aviation emission allowances, thus bringing aviation into line with other sectors covered by the ETS, which means that for the first time in the world we have a legal framework to decarbonise aviation emissions. T&E also secured a commitment in law to address aviation’s considerable non-CO2 effects.

False hopes

Perhaps most importantly, the ETS reform was an admission by the EU that it doubts the credibility of the proposed global solution to offset aircraft emissions. The UN aviation agency ICAO is developing a carbon offsetting scheme, but vested interested are undermining the rules governing the quality of the offsets, the transparency of the scheme, and the safeguards against the use of unsustainable biofuels.

T&E is fighting back by joining 95 other NGOs from five continents to condemn ICAO’s plans for large-scale use of biofuels in planes. While some, including politicians in Europe, see biofuels as a silver bullet, T&E knows from the EU’s past experience that creating huge demand for biofuels inevitably leads to further palm oil expansion, causing more deforestation, climate-changing emissions, landgrabbing and land and human rights abuses. In October we handed over a petition from over 170,000 citizens demanding that the aviation sector not be allowed to trash the rainforest for so-called ‘green’ jet fuel.

But pushing for environmental integrity is difficult when up against the undue influence of industry. Last year T&E discovered emails between aircraft manufacturer Airbus and the European Commission. The emails showed that, when drafting climate rules for new aircraft, Airbus was given special privileges in determining essential aspects of the EU’s negotiating position at ICAO. The result is a global aircraft standard which will do nothing to cut the sector’s soaring emissions.

“Now we know: when it comes to climate Europe lets Airbus write its own rules, rendering them ineffective.” – Andrew Murphy, T&E aviation manager Reuters, 27 November 2017

Real solutions?

With no technological silver bullets on the horizon, the aviation sector has hard choices to make if it is to stop being the fastest and cheapest way of frying the planet. Effectively pricing the sector’s pollution, and removing its subsidies and tax breaks, is the most immediate option. Electro-fuels – if produced from renewables such as wind and solar – should start to be given serious consideration. Also known as power to liquid, these are electricity-based liquid fuels which can be used in internal combustion engines. The huge amounts of renewable electricity needed to produce electrofuels means they may not be a silver bullet and are likely to only be able to meet part of aviation’s future energy needs. Flying less, flying more efficiently, and flying powered by electrofuels is not a bad plan.

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