Explaining why there is so little innovation in reducing emissions from airlines

Roger Tyers, Teaching Associate in Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Nottingham writes on The Conversation website to explain why innovations in the aviation sector are not being adopted at a significant scale.


How a 1940s treaty set airlines on a path to high emissions and low regulation

Before the pandemic, aviation was on course to be the UK’s most polluting sector and produce as much as 22% of global emissions by 2050. The industry is suffering from low demand due to coronavirus restrictions, but without meaningful policy changes, flight numbers and emissions are expected to return to pre-COVID-19 levels by 2024.

When accounting for emissions, aviation is often seen as a special case because there is no alternative to flying at any meaningful scale without fossil fuels, unlike the energy sector, where there’s wind or solar, or land transport, where electric vehicles exist. But alternatives to fossil-fuelled flight do exist. Arguably, the most viable options are carbon-neutral synthetic fuels, which are made by combining carbon from air and hydrogen from water using electricity. These fuels wouldn’t require new fleets of aircraft and could be generated by capturing carbon directly from the air rather than taking more out of the ground.

So why aren’t these innovations – alongside biofuels and electric planes – being adopted at a significant scale? To answer this question, we have to go as far back as the mid-1940s, when the aviation industry was just taking off.

A historical anomaly

The lifeblood of aviation is kerosene, a fossil fuel. Burning a tonne of kerosene generates about three tonnes of carbon dioxide. Burn 359 billion litres, as the aviation industry did in 2018, and you create about 900 million tonnes of CO₂ – more than Germany did that year.

The UN agency tasked with overseeing the aviation industry, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), was established by the Chicago Convention in the aftermath of World War II. In a bid to stimulate growth in what was, at the time, a fledgling industry, the convention ensured kerosene wasn’t taxed for international flights and there was no VAT on tickets. This enabled budget air travel, and along with other government subsidies, gave aviation a competitive advantage over ferries or night trains, which have a lower carbon footprint than flights but can’t compete on price.

Drivers pay a tax on motor fuel, and even drinkers pay taxes on beer and wine. It’s a historical anomaly that aviation, generally seen as the fastest way for individuals to warm the atmosphere, isn’t taxed according to the amount of fuel it consumes. As long as kerosene remains cheap and untaxed, there is little incentive for airlines to invest in low-carbon innovations.

The future of regulation

It’s possible that sovereign states could decide to unilaterally tax kerosene, or adopt a fuel tax unilaterally through the EU or similar institutions. But there’s a risk that any such move could lead to “tankering” – when carriers simply refuel outside a taxation zone.

ICAO did produce a scheme to mitigate emissions with efficiency measures, biofuels and by purchasing carbon offsets from other sectors, without limiting growth in air travel demand and supply. Sadly, the extremely low cost of offsets mean that cheap flights are likely to continue. An independent analysis of ICAO’s proposed scheme cautioned that, as it stands, it will compensate for just 12% of global passenger aviation emissions by 2030.

Governments can still impose taxes on tickets, instead of fuel, as the UK did with air passenger duty. These can be made fairer through a frequent flyer levy, which would ensure those who fly more pay more. For domestic flights – which are not subject to ICAO rules – governments have much more freedom to impose taxes so that trains are not so much more expensive than flights on similar routes, as they currently often are.

Local government has a role to play too. Aviation can only keep expanding if it’s given capacity to do so. The many UK councils considering airport expansions could reject such proposals. While that wouldn’t fix the problem, it would stop it getting worse.

It’s possible that national leaders at the Glasgow climate summit in 2021 might call for a worldwide, tapered phase-out of aviation kerosene, which could spark innovation in cleaner alternatives, as seen in the car industry with future bans on diesel and petrol vehicles. If not, national governments could make their own unilateral plans. Unless action is taken, the aviation industry’s contribution to the climate emergency will likely continue to grow.

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10 thoughts on “Explaining why there is so little innovation in reducing emissions from airlines

  1. And of course the Paris Agreement has nothing to say about aviation (or maritime for that matter) Two very big omissions.

      1. And later this week the international Maritime Organisation will be making a grand announcement , committing international shipping to reduce emissions by 50% in 2050.
        Big Deal? That will leave this sector in 2050 still producing more emissions than the whole of Scandinavia does today.

      2. Unbelievable that they are taking such an attitude and that they are not being more ambitious in finding innovative solutions

      3. Disgraceful perhaps. But, on past evidence of IMO behaviour , all too believable. Apparently, not living on the same planet as the rest of us.

      4. It is disgraceful. Because international trade has increased so much in recent decades, maybe they feel they can get away with anything because they consider themselves indispensable. But the IMO is a UN agency and they should be falling into line with the commitment of the Secretary General to do everything possible to reduce emissions. Maybe this is something that should be discussed at COP26.

      5. As COP26 is not due to be held until 12 months time, I have no doubt that the IMO would be only too pleased to agree to wait for their cop-out being discussed (in the margins )until then.

      6. There are a lot of meetings leading up to COP26. But, assuming the IMO takes a less than optimal ambitious decision soon, COP26 could still prove important. Maybe we need to get Fatih Birol to take this seriously. His PR machine can certainly do blame and shame on a global scale

      7. As the IMO members probably don’t contribute too much to the operational running costs of the International Energy Agency, it would be an excellent initiative were Mr Birol and the IEA to become more involved in “naming and shaming” in the maritime world. Same goes for aviation policy.
        Although forgive me if I don’t hold my breath……

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