Aviation Emissions: will flying under the radar on a wing and a prayer help or prevent tourism to flourish?

I make no apology for this being a long post or provocative. The topic is complex and contentious and required a significant investment of time and effort to digest let alone understand. Those who want  a PDF with more references and reading are welcome to write me: theconscioushost@gmail.com and I’ll send.

This post is being written a few air miles from Paris in the penultimate  day of COP21 – the third major stage in humanity’s journey toward a collective commitment to prevent the planet’s climate warming to an unbearable level.

elephants in the roomIt turns out that while  prospects for some form of binding agreement are far better than at the Copenhagen talks five years earlier, two sectors, described by many as “elephants in the room” have done their best to avoid being included in any form of binding agreement and they are shipping and aviation with potentially disastrous results. (As of Wednesday night the key paragraphs related to the two sectors that together accounts for 5% of global emissions has been dropped)

A few hours ago this statement was issued by the NGO, Transport and Environment (T&E)

“The dropping of international aviation and shipping emissions from the draft Paris climate agreement makes keeping a temperature increase under 2 degrees close to impossible. Those parties calling for an ambitious agreement must insist that language on international transport be reinserted.

The journey started in earnest in 1992 with the formation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) followed five years later with the signing of the Kyoto Protocol. Because the Kyoto Protocol was designed to obtain national commitments, it lacked a mechanism to manage global phenomena such as shipping and aviation so the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and the International Maritime Organisation were mandated to reduce emissions. Unfortunately neither has yet succeeded in doing so as is evident in the graph below.

shipping & aviatios emissions
ICAO has since moved at a speed slower than most Greenland glaciers. Major breakthroughs have included the agreement to study, the agreement to plan, and the agreement to agree. This sector’s sense of urgency is evident in this progress statement.

At ICAO’s triennial assembly in 2013, an agreement was reached to proceed with a roadmap towards a decision to be taken in 2016 for implementation in 2020.

Only in this context, does the headline of a press release issued by the Global Travel Association (GTAC) [1] make sense. The release is vague and does not define what a successful outcome might look like but we know from other press releases that the aviation members, notably IATA, ATAG and ICAO, prefer to avoid inclusion in any binding agreement. They believe that progress can best be made at the ICAO meeting due to take place in September 2016 – by which time they’ll know just how strong (demanding) the Paris deal shapes up.

gtac press release.jpg

As you would expect, the aviation and shipping lobby have supporters and opponents – countries that stand to benefit from the next phase of globalisation are reluctant to pin these transport sectors down while numerous NGOs, the IMF, the EU and even the World Bank would prefer to have these sector participate in the deal.

A Turbulent Future

Going forward, it’s quite possible that instead of flying under the radar, aviation (along with shipping) could find itself in the spotlight as the drama of reaching a binding agreement intensifies. Despite this, the bulk of the tourism industry is silent and seems to be looking the other way – either unaware of the spotlight or hoping it will quickly dim or be directed elsewhere. Despite the fact that climate change dwarfs virtually all other issues focused upon by the responsible /sustainability community, discussion of this topic has been surprisingly sparse.

This silence is a tragedy and a disgrace and provides convincing evidence that much of the tourism industry is either asleep at the controls, or playing Captain Smith on tourism’s Titanic.

And here’s why:

  • Lack of regulation and the onset of globalisation have meant that aviation and shipping emissions grew by 78-83% between 1990 and 2010 compared to a growth of just 40% in all other sectors.
  • Furthermore, according ICAO’s own research, aviation-related emissions are set to increase by a further 270% by 2050 such that, 35 years from now, the two unregulated sectors (shipping and tourism) would together account for 40% of all global emissions! There will be no possibility to “fly under the radar” unnoticed then – if you could fly at all.Failure to include two industrial sectors whose combined emissions are equivalent to UK and Germany combined in any binding agreement would completely dash the survival aspirations of many Small Island Developing States and other vulnerable nations and significantly undermine our chances of not over shooting the 2 degree warming limit (see previous post and Kevin Anderson’s speech at WTM 2015).
  • The two sectors are in danger of losing a social licence to operate should all other sectors pursue rigorous de-carbonisation programs bound by a global agreement and held to account by an increasingly informed public experiencing more and more personal inconvenience, havoc, and harm as average temperatures continue to rise, climate-related hazards increase in frequency, and crops fail etc.
  • There are two other elephants in the room that need to be reckoned with: equity and growth. First equity: 45% of total CO2 emissions are generated by just 10% of the population and, while there is a direct correlation between rising middle classes and rising emissions, it is also becoming clear that within the middle classes distribution of emissions is highly skewed to a minority. Increasingly inequalities within national borders are more important than those between countries and a privileged elite in emerging countries is starting to outstrip working class Europeans (in terms of emissions per capita). The same pattern applies to aviation demand. In the UK, for example, just 15% of the population takes 70% of the flights and 55% didn’t fly abroad at all in 2013.Second volume growth – as has been discussed frequently on this web site, and especially here, tourism’s dependency on volume growth constitutes the other elephant in the room. There is no evidence that the tourism sector has been or will be able to de-couple resource use and emission production at anywhere near the rate needed to compensate for its aggressive growth forecasts. From both an equity and resource efficiency perspective it vital that the tourism industry shift its focus from more to better and that will require the attention of everyone.
  • Losing that social licence to operate may take a more tangible form – currently not a cent in tax is paid worldwide on aviation fuel for commercial aircraft or fuel oil for container ships, passenger ferries or cruise liners, nor are these sectors required to collect VAT on ticket salesin Europe According to Euractiv, aviation enjoys fossil fuel subsidies amounting to € 60 billion and since most flights are taken by the world’s wealthiest people (that includes people like me and you dear reader) it’s only a matter of time before it becomes politically expedient as well as socially desirable for passenger levies to be imposed on those who are most responsible for emissions from this sector.
  • Unless the visitor economy makes every effort to reduce emissions as a whole – on the ground and in the air – it will also find its bullish growth projections impossible to achieve as international tourism becomes the victim as well as contributor to climate change. Rising temperatures will render many sunny, warm destinations unbearable for much of the year, rising sea levels and strong, more frequent storms will disrupt travel patterns with increasing frequency; increased civil unrest due to food shortages, drought and political breakdown will increase the volume of refugees and incidences of terrorism and or protest and impede the free unhindered movement of people across international borders. In a worst case scenario, if “business as usual” does prevail and the rest of the economy fails to meet whatever pledges a deal in Paris binds them to, then we’re on course for a 4-6 degree increase described as simply catastrophic. International travel will have come to a stand still.

The Aviation Position
The alternative approach favoured by the ICAO, the aviation sector and the main-stream tourism leadership, looks promising but falls far short of what’s needed despite all the good intentions and accomplishments made by individual enterprises within the sector as described in ATAG’s colourful publication Solutions and the recent WTTC publication Connecting Global Climate Action. The aviation sector’s strategy for reducing carbon has four pillars:

brandalism airline ad

(C) Brandalism

  • Technology – new planes (1.3 trillion dollar’s worth) and winglets
  • Operational Improvements – continuous descent and shortened flight times but which nevertheless are proving harder to achieve due weather-related disruptions and changes to flight paths
  • Biofuels known as “sustainable alternative aviation fuels” credited with enormous potential but also unlikely to be commercially viable until the mid 2020s and, depending on funding or science, possibly later.
  • Smart Economic Measures” also known as Market Based Mechanisms or MBM for short that translate into a globally uniform approach to carbon trading and offsetting.

Essentially, ICAO is planning to cap aviation emissions at 2020 levels and offset the rest confident that “after 2020 the industry will start seeing some of the larger emission reduction possibilities of advanced technologies and sustainable aviation fuels which will allow the industry to aim for its most ambitious goals: to ensure net carbon emissions from aviation will be half of what they were in 2005 or 320 million tonnes of carbon, despite the growth in passenger numbers and cargo.”

Please note the words in bold and especially the word net in front of carbon emissions. This is not the same as actual reductions in CO2 but an offset purchased from other sectors of society or achieved by a massive reallocation of land from food to fuel production. In plain language – the aviation sector expects CO2 savings will generally be made in other sectors of the economy to enable aviation-related CO2 to grow or be cut by less.

Dr Kevin Anderson’s colleague, at the Tyndall Centre, Alice Bows-Larkin, challenges the effectiveness of “market based measures” suggesting that, for them to work, carbon prices would have to soar higher than most policy makers could countenance. Failure by this sector to make real cuts will require all others to make deeper reductions

“The rapidity with which the CO2 budget is being consumed requires immediate cuts in CO2 growth rates across all sectors. As long as aviation and shipping are outside of a global and strictly bound trading scheme, 2 degrees C implies that CO2 growth rates need to be near zero by 2015 to 2020”

 Bows-Larkin then concludes:

Technologies to cut CO2 in the required time frame are few and far between. Nations where per capita flying as well as growth rates are high have no option but to consider constraining growth in the short term, until fuel efficiency improvements or use of biofuel can more than offset the CO2 produced by a further rise in passenger-km.

In a 2014 paper, All adrift: aviation, shipping and climate change policy, available here, Bows-Larkin raises an interesting ethical and moral issue.

Should aviation, which in a global context is dominated by relative affluent leisure passengers, take priority over others sectors for the use of sustainable biofuels in preference to less popular policies aiming to curb or even cut growth rates? … For aviation, pinning so much hope on emissions trading to meet the 2 degree  C challenge is misguided.

climate reality pic of rbFortunately some high profile business leaders and one boss of an airline are sounding more committed and ambitious (see Guardian article Dec 6th). Richard Branson, CEO Virgin Airlines, is part of a coalition calling for the deal to embrace carbon neutrality by 2050 (as opposed to the end of the century); eliminate fossil fuel subsidies; tax carbon; and fund clean energy research so we can eliminate fossil energy. This group is also urging us to set 1.5 degree warming as a target (as opposed to the 2 degree limit) in order to protect the most vulnerable – millions living at sea peel along river deltas or on low lying islands….

I sub-titled this post – flying on a wing and a prayer – for good reason.

Future investors are likely to ask – is the aviation strategy appropriately responsible and sufficiently imaginative to ensure sustained community support over time – especially when we get daily reports of disasters, droughts, floods, famine etc.  While savvy existing investors might also doubt that they’ll get a decent return from $1.3 trillion invested in new aircraft if aviation experiences worsening impacts caused by a changing climate, if airport expansion is constrained and additional price mechanisms are introduced to ensure the limits of carbon budget aren’t exceeded.

Conclusions: The Tourism Conundrum

In short, the future for aviation will not be a repeat of the past. The sector is in for a very turbulent ride ahead and this is an issue that affects all of tourism and should involve the entire sector. This is not about blame. Nor should it be about special treatment.

None of us who work in the tourism sector and especially those of us who travel long distances by air can avoid burning carbon. The tourism industry is absolutely vital to the global economy as it is currently structured. But then so is agriculture, IT, health, manufacturing and education all of which are being asked to find creative ways of cutting back their contribution to a global carbon budget/footprint. Neither tourism as a whole nor aviation as a sub sector can or should ask for special treatment. Nor can the non-aviation aspects of tourism pretend that they aren’t part of either the problem or the solution and try to ignore the carbon elephant in the room. Nor can the aviation sector act in isolation and resist imposition of levies that could raise funds to help the ground aspects of tourism move as quickly as possible to carbon neutrality. If there is a failure right now, it is that we’re not seeing the system as a whole, not collaborating as interdependent partners, and failing to own up to the need to tackle huge challenges.

I am neither a carbon nor a finance expert but common sense dictates that the following concepts should at least be considered.

  1. Given that flight-related emissions are generated by a relatively small proportion of the population and given that much of mass industrial-style tourism does not generate sufficient yield in many developing countries to enable them to either adapt or mitigate, then some form of global frequent flyer passenger levy or user pay scheme should be introduced and paid into a fund distributed to the receiving countries for the purpose of  generating a carbon neutral tourism sector on the ground. French economists Lucas Chanel and Thomas Piketty have calculated that a €189 levy on business class tickets and a €20 on economy class would raise an estimated €150 billion a year for climate adaptation.
  2. Each destination should be required to produce a carbon mitigation and adaption strategy as part of a community-shaped destination development strategy that would provide a clear benchmark of the carbon footprint generated by inbound visitors. Such strategies would mark an initial step towards sound destination management and develop pathways towards becoming carbon neutral on the ground. Such an undertaking would also have the benefit of pulling together an entire host community to ensure that it is ready – creative and resilient enough – to face and flourish in a very uncertain future.
  3. The non-avaiation portion of the travel and tourism industry which, in terms of companies, far outstrips the aviation sector, needs to become part of this discussion. It has a vested interest in the outcome. Should the fate of an entire industry worth over $7 trillion be determined by the airlines and other multinational leaders who have been the primary beneficiaries of both its growth and subsidies to date? How are the interest of the significantly larger number of small and micro enterprises, their employees and their resident neighbours represented here? The reports and statements issued by GTAC consistenly support business as usual (albeit with some green and sustainability added on) despite growing recognition that deeper systemic or structural innovation is needed to respect biophysical realities and social equity. Hence our focus on community action.

At this time in tourism’s history it doesn’t matter what motivates you to face the tough questions – whether you wish to make your business more profitable, your community safer or to increase your reputation in a transparent world of changing values. What matters is that we don’t shirk the painful and the difficult and procrastinate any longer.

mlk 2

In response to Martin Luther King’s injunction, I would say the time is now.

[1] GTAC is a relatively new coalition of the key drivers of mainstream tourism formed to offer:.. .‘One Voice’ to spur governments to develop policies which contribute to the profitable, sustainable and long-term growth of the industry. GTAC is comprised of Airports Council International (ACI), Cruise Line International Association (CLIA), International Air Transport Association (IATA), International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA), World Economic Forum (WEF), World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) and the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC)”


BREAKING NEWS (after initial publication midday Thursday)
ICAO expectations for an emissions deal from their September 2016

Informative article on the 5th elephant no one either wants or is allowed to discuss – carbon generated by America’s largest single employer – the military.

5 Responses to “Aviation Emissions: will flying under the radar on a wing and a prayer help or prevent tourism to flourish?”

  1. Excellent analysis Anna.

    I’m not sure why you added the military carbon as an addendum It’s more than just a fifth elephant in the room, but it has nothing to do with tourism. Anyone in the developed world who has researched reducing their carbon footprint to the levels required will discover that the carbon footprint of their tax spend is greater than their entire carbon budget in 2050. Robert and Brenda Vale published studies of the governmental carbon footprints in their 2009 book “Time to Eat the Dog?: The Real Guide to Sustainable Living”. In their book they suggest that governments will reduce their ecological footprints if the public reduce theirs first. Anyone has gone this far down the trail to reducing their ecological footprint will have already given up flying, except in emergencies.

    • I mentioned the military because, until Joe Staiano mentioned it I hadn’t really looked at the data. The fact that the Americans have insisted the military be excluded from any deal or discussions on the subject shows just how crazy the whole situation is.

  2. Certainly the implications of #COP21 should be to scale back air travel, not increase it?

    • Dr Kevin Anderson affirmed that if we want to keep global warming within the 2 degree limit AND continue to uphold the notion of equity, residents of wealthy countries will have to reduce demand for flights until planes can fly on non-fossil fuels. In my opinion, the ground aspects of tourism have a responsibility to go carbon neutral as quickly as possible – that suggests some serious planning yet according to the University of Cambridge study virtually no destinations have undertaken systematic carbon mitigation or climate change adaptation plans. If we are to persist in using the term “tourism industry” we need to act as one – aviation is a critical element of tourism and therefore it’s problem is our problem and all the elements of the visitor economy must collaborate and develop a shared vision of a future that doesn’t rely so heavily on a fuel that is now causing more harm than good.


  1. Transporte aéreo y cambio climático: retos de diferenciar rutas y usuarios - December 16, 2015

    […] con el comportamiento de la población en cada país o aún región. Para el transporte aéreo Anna Pollock ofrece datos para Gran Bretaña que indican por ejemplo que el 55% de la población no tomó nunca […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: