You’ve Got Questions, We’ve Got Answers
Do you want to stop everybody flying completely?
No! We expect flying will always continue in some form. What we are challenging is excessive or unsustainable growth. We want our industry to be realistic about the levels of air traffic possible in the near future, and we believe the sooner we plan for and implement a transition to low-emissions transport, the more flying will be possible in the future.
Flying provides ‘liberty and freedom’, so won’t regulations take this away?
There are responsibilities and costs that accompany liberties and freedoms. Currently, the true cost of flying is not reflected in the price. We need to recognise the real cost of flying in terms of its environmental impact and use of resources. That doesn’t mean zero flying, but recognising that flying can be done in a more distributed and sparing manner than it is today.
There’s a limit to the amount of carbon we can emit before exceeding our global carbon budget for 1.5⁰C of global warming. If we do so, we’ll risk uncontrollable and irreversible climate, ecological and societal collapse. Limiting global air traffic is therefore a small price to pay for long-term preservation of our society and natural world.
Often the tourist destinations which are most popular to visit are also at most risk of collapse: orangutan habitats within rainforests, marine habitats and coral reefs, and low-lying island beaches. By continuing to increase our emissions, we’ll contribute to the destruction of these regions – and will limit our ability, and that of future generations, to continue to visit and enjoy them. Likewise, whether we can continue to support a thriving aviation sector into the future is dependent on our ability to limit emissions over the next decade.
If we need to fly less, should I be ashamed of my industry or career choice?
Not at all. We’re sure that most people choose a career in aviation with good intentions – a desire to connect people and enable the world to travel. These are positive aspirations. However, we do want to remain proud of our industry, and can surely only do so if we’re honest about the impacts of flying, and the changes required to reduce these impacts.
Individual actions are important and powerful. Some employees in the industry have made the brave choice to change careers due to the climate impact of flying. Others feel they are best placed remaining within the industry to push for change. Ultimately, we need a range of strategies, and must support & collaborate with each other – solidarity is key. Real power is derived from worker-led movements, so by joining together we have huge collective power!
If I fly as a consumer, should I be ashamed of my actions?
No, as we don’t accept the narrative that diverts attention from corporate leaders and places responsibility for the climate crisis on the shoulders of individuals instead. It is a manipulative strategy that can undermine efforts to decarbonise by allowing large corporations to avoid responsibility and scrutiny. Pointing the finger at consumers can toxify the debate around climate action – when we need to foster cooperation and collaboration.
While we support individual actions (for instance flying less as consumers), we believe that the impact of aviation must be addressed through regulation and industry-wide action, not by shaming individuals who have less power to address systemic issues. Shame isn’t an effective approach, but positive collective actions can help us move forwards together.
We’ve noticed a misunderstanding around the ‘Flygskam’ concept that originated in Sweden. This translates to ‘Flight-Shame’ and personal shame felt when you realise your actions have negative consequences, but importantly does not mean ‘Flight-Shaming’ of others who fly. Apart from anything else, there is a lot of misinformation related to the climate-impact of aviation and many air travellers do not fully understand this yet, or have been misled through greenwash about the ability of technology or e.g. carbon offsetting to minimise this impact. As far as we’re aware, no environmental group is intentionally ‘flight-shaming’ others.
The aviation industry is currently on its knees due to COVID-19, why do you think this is an appropriate time to talk about limiting air traffic growth?
We empathise with any worker currently experiencing a loss or reduction in employment due to the pandemic – this is an incredibly difficult time and even if you have stayed in full-time employment, the uncertainty in the aviation industry created by the pandemic is likely to have impacted your mental health. This is exactly the situation we want to avoid, but are worried will happen again in the future if another, potentially far bigger, industry crash is induced by the climate crisis – given how out-of-touch current aviation policies are from what’s necessary to limit global warming to 1.5°C.
We fully-support a return to the sector for any aviation workers currently out of work due to the pandemic. What we take issue with, is future unrestricted expansion of global air traffic (and associated hiring of new employees), if that growth is fundamentally unsustainable.
The truth is that aviation workers are already facing multiple inter-related crises: health and climate. Furthermore, we’ve noted the recent re-emergence of the ‘pilot shortage’ narrative being perpetuated by industry which only serves to water down Terms & Conditions and saturate an already challenging job market.
We need to strike while the iron is hot and prepare for inevitable changes to the industry. The fact that some airline, airport, factory etc. expansion plans have currently been paused, actually places us in a useful position where we can take-stock, assess the situation, and pivot our industry towards a safe and sustainable trajectory.
You’ve Got Questions, We’ve Got Answers
Flying is only 3% of global CO2 emissions – isn’t it only a small part of the problem?
3% of global CO2 emissions is a very large amount. If aviation were a country, it would rank among the top 10 emitters and this doesn’t even account for non-CO2 emissions which approximately triple the climate impact of aviation beyond CO2 emissions alone. Aviation’s growth trajectory is also important, as its share of global CO2 may grow to 25% by 2050 if other sectors decarbonise and we do not.
The socio-economic distribution of flying is also important as these emissions are produced by a relatively small minority of the global population, and also by a minority of the national population within countries whose citizens fly more. E.g. UK aviation emissions contribute 8% of total UK emissions (far higher than the global average), and within the UK around 15% of the population take 70% of the flights. Globally, only 2% to 4% of the population flew internationally in 2018 and only 1% of the population emits 50% of the CO2 from commercial aviation.
Other sectors produce more emissions, why not focus on those instead?
Emissions from all sectors contribute to reducing our remaining carbon budget, so it is indeed crucial to reach sustainable levels in each and every one. As aviation workers, we want our industry to take ownership of its impact and plans to credibly reduce this. Aviation is a very long-term industry which heavily relies on high density energy sources and is difficult to electrify. This makes it very difficult to decarbonise and means that it is very energy- and emissions intensive. For example: someone flying from Lisbon to New York and back generates roughly the same level of emissions as the average person in the EU does by heating their home for a whole year.
While other sectors have decreased their emissions, historical trends show how aviation emissions have grown at a x3 higher rate than overall global emissions (e.g. between 1990 and 2010, aviation CO2 has increased by 70% compared to the 25% increase in global CO2 emissions). Future growth forecasts are in line with these trends and would position aviation as one of the top emitting sectors in 2050. We can’t afford to wait and let this happen – so we need to take action now, to change this trajectory.
“Catastrophe is certain” so aren’t we doomed anyway - we might as well fly?
It is increasingly likely that we’ll exceed 1.5°C and even 2°C of global warming very soon. However, this is no reason to give up: if we’re accelerating towards a brick wall, it’s never too late to hit the brakes and minimise the impact. We need to mitigate the severity of global warming, and will only have a chance of doing so if we reduce the most emissions-intensive activities (such as flying), as soon as possible. As workers, we need to plan for this change by preparing ourselves and attempting to steer the industry away from danger.
Figure: Boeing September 2021 outlook of global aircraft fleet in 2030 and 2040 vs. 2019
The planned doubling of aircraft and global air traffic by 2040 is akin to accelerating towards a brick wall – this would only make sense if you planned to bail from the vehicle before the collision – perhaps this is what the industry leadership plan to do?
You’ve Got Questions, We’ve Got Answers
Why not develop new technologies, rather than rely on policies?
Technological options are all currently unproven, uncertain or have a track-record of failure to reduce emissions. Pilots and safety critical aviation workers are trained to always have a Plan B. If we find ourselves with an uncertain outcome and we don’t have a credible back-up plan, then we have failed to manage the risk and have failed to do our job.
If we continue down the path of technological optimism, or “techno-optimism”, with huge uncertainty and it doesn’t work, we have no back-up. The fuel has been burned, the temperature has risen, and there is no going back. Therefore, we need to examine other options (e.g. demand management policies) to ensure we navigate ourselves towards a sustainable emissions trajectory.
Won’t electric aircraft reduce emissions from flying?
Electric aircraft suffer from issues of payload and range due to the weight of batteries and electrical systems. They will only be viable for very small and short-range aircraft in the near-future. As such, they only have the potential to decarbonise a very small % of global aviation emissions. In most cases electric aircraft will be competing with ground transport options, rather than existing air transport routes. So, while it’s an exciting new development, the emergence of electric aircraft shouldn’t distract from the regulations necessary for the rest of air travel in order to reduce the majority of aviation emissions.
What about electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft?
There are a large number of relatively small start-up companies attempting to develop and certify electric aircraft over the next decade. Many of the concepts receiving significant investment are eVTOL configurations. These aircraft are designed to take-off and land on helicopter pads or short runways, in order to enable versatility of operation from a range of locations. However, these aircraft are even more inefficient than conventional fixed-wing electric aircraft, as they have higher take-off & landing power requirements, and higher weight and drag during the rest of the flight. They will only be capable of carrying a very small number of passengers (e.g. less than 5), very short distances (e.g. less than 500km). If this market is commercially successful, it will not compete with existing aviation markets and would really be a competitor for taxi services on the ground. So it is unlikely to significantly contribute to the reduction of aviation emissions.
Won’t hydrogen aircraft reduce emissions from flying?
Hydrogen powered aircraft still need to be designed and developed. Many problems still need to be solved before they become a reality, particularly regarding how the hydrogen is stored. The biggest issue with hydrogen is the uncertainty over it’s development, and timescales for certifying and entering aircraft into service. Boeing doesn’t like the idea, and even Airbus (who champion the idea) have admitted that hydrogen aircraft will not be widely used before 2050. So the potential of this technology shouldn’t distract from the near-term emissions reductions required from jet fuel powered aircraft because even if hydrogen aircraft do become a reality, they will arrive far too late to tackle the climate emergency.
Will biofuels (branded “Sustainable Aviation Fuel”) reduce aircraft emissions?
Aviation biofuel scale-up has also been promised by the industry for more than a decade, but currently less than 0.01% of jet fuel is biofuel. First generation biofuels (from crops) are proven to cause very serious environmental & social impacts such as: deforestation, peat bog drainage, biodiversity loss, water scarcity, land conflicts, labour abuse, and rising food prices. There is a relatively small amount of second generation biofuels (from ‘sustainable’ waste) available globally and this can be used more efficiently to decarbonise other sectors. Therefore, any use of aviation biofuels is likely to in-directly increase emissions. Second generation biofuels are likely to only replace a small percentage of jet fuel in the future e.g. max 5-10% by 2030, so the majority of jet fuel used in the near-term will remain fossil fuel.
You’ve Got Questions, We’ve Got Answers
Do carbon offset policies work?
The principle of offsetting is deeply flawed and all carbon credit schemes (whether voluntary or administered via the schemes like the EU/UK ETS or international CORSIA scheme) have proven issues with verification, effectiveness and permanence.
Carbon offsets generally result in tree planting or ‘forest protection’. Serious problems include:
- Planting trees to remove CO2 from the atmosphere does not balance from a carbon perspective because aviation emissions are released immediately but trees take decades to grow. In the intervening decades the additional CO2 continues to contribute to global warming, potentially triggering irreversible feedback loops and further heating.
- There is no guarantee of the permanence of CO2 removed from the atmosphere by tree planting. In particular, in a warming world there is increased risk of forest fires, which have already impacted offsetting projects.
- Airlines often use schemes which claim to reduce deforestation, but the validity of these claims have been strongly questioned by researchers.
- Offset scheme projects often disregard the rights of local communities, can lead to land conflicts, labour abuses and increased food and water scarcity
We therefore need alternative policies that directly target and reduce aviation emissions.
By increasing the cost of flying, will we not unfairly price out low-income travellers?
This question should ideally be a focus of any policy measure designed to restrict air traffic growth. There is nothing to say we cannot restrict air traffic, while simultaneously improving the equality of access to travel.
In general, low-income groups contribute very little to total aviation emissions, while the frequent flights of high-income groups tend to produce the vast majority of emissions. Therefore, a policy measure which drives down emissions by targeting higher-income frequent flyers, while still widening access to air travel for lower-income infrequent travellers, appears relatively easy to devise.
Is there any point in some of us flying less, if others will simply fly more?
It’s true that individual actions aren’t enough. We need global agreements to ensure global regulations and action. This is why it’s vital that we apply pressure to policy-makers from all countries and ensure aviation emissions are discussed at international climate change summits such as COP26. We believe that the aviation industry should acknowledge this publically, rather than producing misinformation about technological solutions in order to delay the debate.
Regulations on flying will be politically unpopular so they won’t happen.
Actually there are many effective policy proposals that do appear popular. When people are well informed about what’s really possible with different technology and policy options, many studies show that the majority of people are supportive of measures such as emissions pricing, jet fuel tax and frequent flier levies.
In addition, the alternative to targeting aviation’s privileged tax position would be to increase the price of other activities which are utilised by a wider proportion of society including more lower-income citizens.
Fundamentally, we need increasing emissions prices across our economy. It will appear politically unpopular to maintain a zero rate of tax on jet fuel, while simultaneously increasing the cost of electricity, road fuel or domestic heating – as those activities affect a larger percentage of the population. So our industry must prepare for this to change. See, for example, the 2019 ‘Gilets Jaunes’ protests in France when the rate of road fuel tax increased and the final outcome was the French Government reversing this and instead applying an “eco-tax” to air travel.
You’ve Got Questions, We’ve Got Answers
Flying provides economic benefit to the local economy around airports, surely we don’t want to limit that?*
Flying only appears to achieve economic benefit if you ignore the economic losses caused by environmental and health impacts. Aviation companies tend to overstate the benefits and downplay the losses. On balance, it can be seen that when the negative impacts are factored in, any economic benefits are often severely eroded. In addition, if there is a large public or private investment in airport/airline expansion, and the expected demand doesn’t materialise as projected: then this is likely to lead to a loss of taxpayer or private investment, and in either case, a loss of employment for workers in that area. It’s therefore in all of our interests if aviation activities are fit-for-purpose and right-sized for the future.
Flying provides economic benefit to tourist destinations, surely regulating aviation more will affect areas reliant on tourism, and that would be unfair?*
Often the benefits of tourism may not be widely distributed to an area, e.g. package tourism holidays where tourists arrive by plane and go straight to a fenced-off resort – so there may only be a concentrated benefit amongst small groups rather than widespread benefit across the population. Overtourism can also be an issue, with seasonal influx of high numbers of tourists putting a strain on local resources and pushing house prices up for locals. If air traffic growth can’t continue as projected, then it’s important that we don’t make such regions and communities even more reliant on flying, and expose them to more risk if the travellers they’re expecting don’t actually materialise in the future.
Finally, many of these destinations are desirable to visit specifically due to the natural beauty and biodiversity of their habitats, so our travel to these destinations should not contribute to their destruction. E.g. Australia may benefit economically in the short-term from travellers flying in to visit the Great Barrier Reef – but in the long-term this is an economic dead-end if the reef is bleached from ocean acidification and dies off.
Don’t developing countries deserve to build airports and enjoy aviation like we have?
Given that our industry flew 4 billion passengers in 2019 and yet about 80% of the world never fly at all, there’s clearly a concentrated minority of the global population who are benefitting from aviation more than others. Before we expand high-emitting industries further, we also need to consider that many developing countries are disproportionately affected by weather extremes, famine, droughts etc. and yet often contribute least to emissions. In fact, the Institute for Economics and Peace, forecasts 1.2 billion people could be displaced due to climate-related events by 2050 – and many will be from such ‘developing’ countries. So it is in everybody’s interest to reduce emissions, and it is within that context that we should aim to improve equality of access to travel and economic opportunity, particularly in the Global South. This implies that more ‘developed’ countries may need to fly less as a starting point.