Aviation’s growing impact on the climate crisis requires radical solutions that could turn the industry upside down, according to a new Nature commentary article from the University of California San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy.
Worldwide, the industry generates approximately 1 billion tons of CO2 per year, which is comparable to Japan, the third largest economy in the world. In addition, emissions from flights increase by about 2.5% every year. Without bold solutions, the industry is on track to increase CO in the next 30 years. to produce2 than that of its entire history.
While renewable energy has scaled up to replace fossil fuels in power generation and both the demand and supply of electric vehicles continue to increase, carbon-free replacement technologies do not exist at a sufficient scale to tackle pollution from aircraft.
“Most of the strategies that governments and businesses are pursuing today are based on well-known technologies. That approach seems short-sighted because many of these technologies don’t work on a large scale,” said co-author David Victor, a professor of innovation and public policy at UC San Diego. School of Global Policy and Strategy co-director of the Deep Decarbonization Initiative. “Eliminating the impact of aviation on global warming will require major disruptions to the way the industry operates today. The longer that reality is evaded, the harder it will be to find effective solutions.”
The Nature piece comes ahead of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) meeting in Montreal, Canada, from Sept. 27 to Oct. 7, where representatives from 193 countries will attempt to negotiate an industry-wide target for reducing the sector’s emissions.
Victor and co-author Steffen Kallbekken of the Center for International Climate Research outline why the two most suggested solutions — cleaner fuels and carbon offsets — likely to be discussed at the meeting are totally inadequate.
Carbon offsetting is a reduction or removal of greenhouse gas emissions (for example, through land regeneration or tree planting) that is used to offset emissions that occur elsewhere. According to the authors, the track record of reliable accounting in these sectors is poor.
“Even with supervision, forest projects are often plagued by wild assumptions, for example that trees would disappear from these areas if those projects did not exist,” they write.
On the other hand, it may be impossible to sustainably produce cleaner jet fuel, which currently comes from conventional biofuel feedstocks such as vegetable oils, in sufficient quantities and at low enough prices to replace all jet fuel. To achieve the level of clean fuel adoption that many governments and companies are striving for – and in a sustainable way – will require the commercialization of new production methods and raw materials that are technologically in their infancy.
And none of these solutions will certainly address the climate effects of contrails, which trap heat radiating from Earth’s surface, warming the atmosphere below.
Solutions should be designed to disrupt
In fact, the warming effects of contrails are still poorly understood by climate scientists, which is why they receive little attention from industry and governments working to decarbonise aviation. It is possible that the effects are small and can be largely managed by rerouting aircraft around the weather conditions that generate the worst contrails. But the effects could also be huge — up to half of aviation’s total climate impact, according to some studies — and require entirely new aviation technologies and approaches to reduce aviation’s climate impact.
The study states that tackling contrails may require a major overhaul of engines, airframes and onboard storage – major, expensive and financially risky decisions. The authors are pushing for more experiments to test what could actually work — supported by government policy and collaborations with industry.
“Resistance to efforts that disrupt the industry’s status quo is understandable as airlines often operate on paper-thin margins,” added Victor. “A growing number of airlines want to do something about the climate, but are left with few practical options.”
Victor and Kallbekken recommend three steps for the industry to create bold solutions to tackle a warming planet.
First, industry and government should do their homework. They need to become more aware of the risks associated with the current approach to aviation’s role in the climate crisis.
Second, small partnerships could be formed between the most motivated governments and companies to take risks on new technologies, which in turn could inspire others to follow suit. For example, a collaboration is underway between the Norwegian government and companies to create a test bed for electric aircraft.
The authors offer concrete strategies for how to establish other collaborations to potentially drive other advancements. For example, by sharing costs and risk, such groups could invest in more diverse response strategies, including hydrogen, electricity and a cleaner, more scalable version of sustainable jet fuel. They are looking to Europe to lead the way, as European governments are already highly motivated to take the climate issue seriously.
Finally, the authors emphasize how essential research is to better understand contrails and chemical interactions in the atmosphere. It could also provide technological, economic and political solutions.