'Carry on flying': a response to the aviation proposals in the DfT Decarbonising Transport report
The Department for Transport has finally published its plan, Decarbonising Transport: A Better, Greener Britain. In terms of aviation, the proposals are hugely disappointing, extremely limited and essentially a charter for the industry, desperate to recover from the pandemic, to build back the same. Many colleagues in environmental and analytical organisations are preparing detailed responses, based on flight numbers, the viability or otherwise of so-called sustainable fuels and climate impact statistics. While these are much needed dissections that provide the ammunition with which to call for more radical action, there is also a need to remind ourselves of the fundamentals, a plain English telling of where we are and where we need to go.
First, technical and scientific solutions to the climate impact of aviation are to be welcomed. No one would disagree with that – a successful call for a reduction in the amount of flying would not exclude us from wanting to see whatever flying remains from being carried out in a more climate friendly way. Whether alternative fuels, aircraft technology, or a combination of both, in principle we would welcome investment aimed at the development of such solutions.
What we do object to is that these solutions are used as industry greenwash that ignores reality in order to justify the continuation (or restoration) of business as usual. All actors agree, including government and industry, that viable solutions will not be available till the late 2030s at best, maybe the 2040s, or even 2050. Many of the solutions currently proposed are either ‘false’ (i.e. create as many problems as they solve) or ‘need work’ (i.e. unproven, requiring more R&D). In particular, synthetic or so-called sustainable fuels are either a long way off development, are expensive and energy intensive to use, are impossible to scale up, or produce more emissions than conventional kerosene.
So we are looking to some future time for the possible advent of alternative ways of flying, hence the DfT commits to ‘net zero domestic aviation by 2040’ and net zero for all aviation by 2050. Even leaving aside the problematic nature of the term ‘net zero’ that is a long way off.
In the meantime plans for traffic growth, and associated airport expansions, remain. These have nothing to do with such solutions and are purely about an increase in fossil fuelled flying, including recovery to 2019 levels by 2025 and then continuing to grow thereafter – more flights in 2026, more in 2027, 2028 and so on.
We should ask:
i. How does such growth in emissions square with a climate emergency for which radical action is needed by 2030 to keep within 1.5C (clue: it doesn’t), and
ii. How the availability of solutions, even accelerated to the 2030s, will help solve a climate crisis that is happening very visibly right now (it won’t).
(As a by-product we should also demand that the industry simply admit that its business model places a higher priority on profit than on climate change. That would at least put the debate on an honest footing so that we can progress.)
Reliance on offsets – a discredited ‘solution’
Given that growth is planned that is contrary to climate targets, and that solutions will not be available for many years, the entire weight of resolving this contradiction is thrown onto the concept of ‘offsetting’. Simply put, we are asked to buy the story that the amount of carbon emitted by aeroplanes over a period of, say, 15-20 years (from a 2025 recovery to pre-pandemic levels, through a period of continuous annual growth, to an assumed availability of solutions in 2040 or 2045) will be entirely offset by other activities across the economy.
There are two main problems with accepting this proposition:
1. The flaws in offsetting
For a start, offsetting does not even attempt to deal with two thirds of aviation's climate impact including water vapour and soot at altitude. CO2 emitted immediately starts warming the the atmosphere and continues doing so during the decades which it takes trees in offsetting projects to grow. And trees are not as safe a carbon store as leaving fossil fuels in the ground (see for example recent wildfires burning offset projects). Schemes claiming to reduce deforestation have also been thrown into doubt as to whether they actually reduce emissions. The maths also doesn't add up. In the future, with all countries and all sectors needing to achieve net zero, there won’t be spare emissions reductions available to buy as offsets
2. The injustices of offsetting
These are both sectoral (other industries have to reduce emissions so that aviation can grow) and geographical (negative impacts of offsetting projects on 'the poorest of the poor', facilitating not development in the Global South but the excesses of an already privileged North). Set that against an aviation sector that predominantly services a tiny elite (15% of UK citizens take 70% of flights and 1% of the world’s population is responsible for half of all aviation emissions – such statistics also demonstrate that calls for reductions in flying are, contrary to the propaganda, not targeted at the average family).
The act of offsetting, presented as a hugely laudable process of guilt-relief, carries the exacerbation of inequality in its very DNA by offloading its impacts onto others.
In simple terms, if we have to accept a continuation of some emissions while en route to a decarbonised society, what logic says that aviation should be at the front of the queue for those emissions? Come to that, how are continued emissions from aviation even vaguely commensurate with the idea of emissions we ‘have to’ accept in building a post carbon society? If there are to be ‘embodied emissions’ surely they should be reserved for essential construction, for example of wind turbines, electric trains, buses and vehicles, and insulation of homes.
Implicit in telling this story is that, despite the climate catastrophe that is happening and on which we need to have made significant strides by 2030, there is no alternative to reducing the amount of flying that we do (or more accurately, not restoring it to pre-pandemic levels). Such a conclusion is ideological anathema to our government, therefore cannot be broached in any of its publications, and is absent from the decarbonisation of transport plan.
But a reduction of flying is an inescapable conclusion by any objective and sane measure of what is best for our society, its people, their jobs, and quality of life. Only if that conclusion can be acknowledged, and acted upon, and the short-term economic interests of corporate owners relegated to second place, can reports such as this one be said to be truly putting people and the planet first.
Tahir Latif is the former president of PCS union's aviation group.
Find out more:
Why workers should oppose aviation expansion (CACCTU flyer, 2019)
A Rapid and Just Transition of Aviation (Stay Grounded)
Biofuelwatch reports on aviation biofuels
A Frequent Flyer Levy (New Economics Foundation)