Panic in the Skies!

6 Jul 2017

Increasing climate impacts from aviation are likely to offset global emission cuts, jeopardising the Paris Agreement’s 2°C target. 



Why is it happening ?

Aviation is the pillar of modern mobility. It has become the leading form of transportation for long distances, while also gaining traction in shorter distances. Nonetheless, demand for aviation is closely correlated with economic growth and development. Emissions of transatlantic flight this year are already higher than the average annual emissions of an Indian citizen. The aviation sector still has plenty of room to expand; growth in Asia is expected to almost double its current market share.


However, aviation accounts for approximately 2-3% of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and 5% of all human-induced changes in global temperatures (or radiative forcing). In addition to this, GHG emissions from international aviation are omitted from the Kyoto Protocol and subsequent agreements because of the difficulties of attributing responsibility. This means that the only one to make efforts to reduce emissions is the aviation industry itself, which has no incentive to do so.


Aviation is one of only two industries whose emissions increased at double the rate of the rest of the economy—the other is shipping. The fact that airplanes release their gases at altitude and produce contrails (clouds of airplane exhaust) also increases the global warming impact. In fact, emissions produced by aircraft have approximately twice the warming impact of emissions on the ground. However, the aviation industry’s climate change plans do not address this problem. 


Why does it matter?

While the air transport sector promised to reduce its emissions, it is unlikely to meet their own targets due to the industry’s continuous growth. The growth in aviation is therefore incompatible with the goal of preventing dangerous climate change. Thus, the aviation issue is a dilemma.


Transport is a significant tool for development and curtailing its use will slow progress in poorer countries. On the other hand, continued use of aviation will worsen the impacts of climate change and potentially reverse development in poorer countries. If aviation emissions remain unchecked, then meeting the Paris Agreement’s goal to keep global temperature rise below 2°C will be even more difficult.


An oft-mentioned solution includes using biofuels. This brings up another set of problems. Biofuels are not always carbon neutral, are highly sought after for ‘clean energy’ and compete with food production. In this dilemma, using biofuels for aviation becomes an ethical consideration: should land be used to fuel aviation for the rich or to provide food for the poor? 



What can you do about it?

 At the international level, climate agreements must account for and include aviation emissions. The UK’s Committee on Climate Change already made this argument, advocating for the reduction of GHG emissions. National governments around the world must embrace this goal.


Including international aviation with the rest of climate change mitigation efforts will make it easier to regulate the sector’s emissions. To this end, millennials are encouraged to lobby their local and national representatives to make this a reality. Millennials can also support the work of the European Federation for Transport and Environment who monitor the industry to ensure they comply with climate targets.


On a personal level, the best solution is to minimize air travel as much as possible. If viable, use alternative forms of travel or use technology to avoid travelling such as video-conferencing. Another solution is to offset emissions by helping to fund climate protection projects around the world. Nonetheless, one must be wary of offsetting, the best option is to avoid flying.




Image Credit: The Intelligence Brief


Mark Preston briefs from Nice, France. He is a candidate for a Master of Science in Climate Change, Development and Policy. Connect with him via LinkedIn


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