Is the aviation industry greenwashing its climate impacts?

Above the Continental Divide of the Rockies in Colorado, with several ski areas, including Keystone and Breckenridge visible.
Is the aviation industry making progress toward more sustainable air travel? @bberwyn photo.

Researchers say promises of new technologies hide true impacts of jet travel

Staff Report

Abetted by the media and politicians, the aviation industry may be engaging in a bit of deceptive greenwashing when it comes to the issue of sustainable air travel, according to a team of university researchers from three countries.

The new study published in the journal Transportation Research Part D  says the way new technologies have been hyped as solutions to addressing the environmental impacts of air travel has perpetuated a culture of non-accountability for increased emissions.

By 2050, aviation will account for 19 percent of the total energy use by the transportation sector, compared to just 11 percent in 2006, said Dr. Scott Cohen, of the University of Surrey.

For the medium-term, the aviation industry has agreed to move toward an overall cap on emissions. In an early February meeting, technical experts with the International Civil Aviation Organization agreed on the proposed standard this week; the organization is expected to adopt the standard at an annual meeting this spring. The industry will also start to consider an overall cap on emissions at 2020 levels. The ICAO could take a vote on such a cap, as well as a carbon-trading program, later this year.

The step is important because if international aviation were a country, it would be a top ten emitter of CO2 on par with Germany or the United Kingdom. And it’s expected to grow enormously as global travel increases. More than 50,000 new large aircraft slated to take to the skies in the next few decades, potentially quadrupling emissions if left unchecked.

There’s plenty of buzz around alternative jet fuels, solar flight and aircraft design options, but so far, the industry has fallen short on actually implementing those technologies in a meaningul way. Yet the public discourse around those topics has helped shield the aviation industry from closer scrutiny of its sustainability policies.

“The way in which new technologies are presented constitutes a ‘myth’, a form of propaganda which denies the truth that progress in climate policy for aviation has stalled. The use of these technology myths by industry and government relieves anxiety that nothing is being done, by pointing to future ‘miracle’ solutions, which in reality are unfeasible,” the researchers concluded.

“We see a definite pattern when it comes to the hyping of these technologies,” said Paul Peeters, associate professor of sustainable transport and tourism at NHTV Breda. “Take solar or electric flight. Through the media, the industry successfully presented these technologies as major breakthroughs that would have beneficial implications for future, zero-emission flight. In reality this is rhetoric that takes headlines away from the fact that emissions policy is failing, and continually points to a better future just around the corner,” Peeters said.

“While these inventions are fascinating from a research perspective, they won’t act as a panacea for the harmful, climate damaging emissions that the aviation industry is increasingly releasing into our atmosphere,” Peeters said. “Industry will always wish to present an optimistic view of their role in this issue, but our research has also shown that some politicians are complicit in propagating these myths and need to stop relying on rhetoric and start referring to facts.”

Conclusions from the study:

  • Damaging emissions from aviation will rise despite assurances from airline industry that air travel will soon become sustainable
  • Reliance on technological solutions in cutting emissions are ‘myths’ propagating inaction by industry and government
  • Technology could help cut harmful emissions, but must be viewed alongside stronger regulation
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