On the 25th May 2023, Safe Landing held a workshop which we called “The Future of Aviation Amid Climate Crisis”.
The aim of the workshop was to bring together aviation workers to consider how the climate crisis will affect our industry, the risks we face, and how we might together to mitigate these threats and navigate towards a positive future for air travel in a low-carbon world.
It’s not very often that we get a chance to stop and truly consider the dangers of where we’re heading, alongside the prize of where we could arrive through taking rapid climate action. It’s also clear that there are many different perspectives out there on the potential risks or rewards that exist and how to approach them. We wanted to pool our collective wisdom.
This was an experiment to test whether workshops which pull together people with different experiences and knowledge across the sector can produce interesting and actionable solutions to the biggest threat to our industry and our planet. The workshop was a “proof of concept” and we hoped to use the event to learn about what works and what doesn’t, to then go on to arranging in-person events that follow a similar structure.
Topics of discussion during the workshop:
- What are ‘worst case’ scenarios for the future of aviation?
- What are ‘best case’ alternative scenarios?
- What are the challenges to realising those alternatives?
- What are the opportunities for workers to collectively overcome those challenges?
Summary of Discussion
1. What are ‘worst case’ scenarios for the future of aviation?
Participants saw the biggest threat to aviation from a continuation of ‘business-as-usual’ air traffic growth. As it stands, this will see flights double across the globe over the next 15 years. Regardless of any technology and fuel solutions being developed by the industry, this will lead to fossil fuel use growing and carbon pollution increasing. Under this scenario, it’s highly likely we discover that we’ve run out of time and have failed. We blow the carbon budget and exceed a safe threshold of global warming sometime in the early 2030s.
We then enter irreversible climate change with runaway global warming. This results in heat waves, drought, crop failure, food and water shortages, damage to infrastructure and mass migration due to various regions becoming uninhabitable. These all lead to a global humanitarian disaster and economic crash. Conflict breaks out over scarce global resources.
The prolonged inflation and ‘cost of living’ crisis due to the climate crisis leads to less disposable income for passengers to fly, material shortages for aircraft and feedstock availability for fuel production increase the costs of flying and put it out of reach for most.
Air travel itself becomes more difficult and dangerous due to more intense weather. Heatwaves make it impossible to take-off. Rising temperatures more generally reduce the payload carrying capacity of aircraft and degrade engine components faster. Increased energy in our weather system makes turbulence more likely. Sea level rise and storms cause more regular flooding of airports and runways. Wildfires affect flight paths (as per the Icelandic volcano). All of this causes increased operating costs in order to deal with delays or to make airports and airlines weather safe amidst more challenging and unpredictable circumstances.
Many ‘tourism’ destinations become unvisitable anyway as they’ve either become unlivable or devastated by climate and conflict. The great barrier reef becomes bleached and dies. Many of our beaches and coastal communities are submerged by sea level rise. We lose the Arctic forever. Ecosystem collapse, biodiversity loss and species extinction destroys the habitats that people once flocked to visit. Carbon offsetting becomes completely unviable.
Most low-carbon energy would need to be directed towards carbon capture and repairing the damage done, which leaves a limited amount available, if any, for aviation. Air travel is limited to essential flights only, or the activity of an elite minority.
Under such a scenario, if an elite minority continued to pollute excessively – amidst the social injustice of a global majority who have lost their homes, livelihoods and communities through climate disaster – it’s not hard to imagine a reactionary form of environmental terrorism that could target the biggest offenders – e.g. places with the worst climate injustice like aviation.
Governments may decide before it gets to this point that actually “we need to stop this” and the aviation industry as we currently know it is shut down completely.
As Marco Troncone, Rome Airports’ chief, stated in 2023:
“Chances are high that in five years’ time, the level of attention [on polluting industries] will be higher than exists now. And at that time, there will be zero tolerance. If there is tolerance, it will only be given in exchange for a promise [to cut emissions], which must be credible.”
A huge aviation industry crash ensues as billions or trillions of aircraft and airport assets become unusable. The majority of aviation workers lose their jobs and due to the scale of the crisis, there is no support to find alternative jobs and re-train.
We then feel extreme shame and frustration looking back that we “buried our heads in the sand” and had been in denial of what was inevitable through our actions. We’ve witnessed drought, famine, wars, mass migration and arguably genocide. The sense of loss is overwhelming.
A lot of this chimes with David Attenborough’s assessment of the situation if we continue on our current flight path:
2. What are ‘best case’ alternative scenarios?
We reduce emissions as rapidly as we can, in order to mitigate climate breakdown as much as possible. This will also give us the best chance of preventing a massive global economic crash. We can do this by thinking of all the benefits that aviation brings and what we’ll lose if we don’t act decisively. It’s about preserving our ability to still be able to travel in the future.
We initiate a war-time mobilisation of the economy, so that all companies and institutions get behind the need to avert a climate catastrophe. Possibly we are already in catastrophe, but we need to preserve livelihoods, wellbeing and culture. We decide that if capitalism is going to work it needs to be guided in a way that regulates fossil fuels out of existence and rapidly scales alternatives.
We throw everything at the problem. We start looking at policies related to demand management and behaviour change, alongside more rapid research and development of new low-carbon aviation technology. We genuinely act in order to have less of an impact on the environment – not just marketing technology in order to slow regulations on fossil fuel.
We begin coordinated action that recognises and penalises the current damage done by fossil fuels, while incentivising the truly sustainable alternative solutions. Regulations are coordinated internationally: recognising that one country, airline or airport can’t do it alone. This is done through negotiation at ICAO and COP (or through other forums, such as bi-lateral agreements, if these don’t progress).
Governments around the world legislate to protect the planet so that aviation companies have to act – rather than leaving it to the corporate world to solve the problem. They enact international agreements such as setting national and sectoral carbon budgets for aviation. International leadership is provided by the high-emitting, high-income countries with existing high per-capita emissions and flying. These countries agree to pause airport expansion in order to allow some more flying in lower-income countries who currently fly far less. This is advocated for by the ITF (page 20).
We introduce financial policies such as frequent flyer levies to make flying fairer across the globe and cut down on excessive flying from a minority. Such policies would be socially progressive can be done whilst improving distribution and access to travel for the majority.
We take the opportunity to be more adaptable as an industry. We can enact policies which optimise aviation for climate impact and can even do many of these now with our current technology available. We optimise flight routes in order to minimise contrails and the total climate impact of aviation, which will provide the maximum benefit in the near-term.
We balance emissions reductions with worker retention by stopping or slowing air traffic growth, balancing our ‘carbon books’ and ensuring that we keep jobs. We divert employees from working on things that are just keeping existing planes flying, toward technology development that can allow us to fly low carbon/energy. We need to change course from business-as-usual growth of existing factories and airport infrastructure that caters to current aircraft designs to re-configuring our factories and airports for aircraft of the future.
An air transport system emerges that is designed and operated to achieve minimum impact and minimum energy/emissions per passenger mile. Airlines and aircraft fly less fast and less far, and passengers are encouraged to travel less frequently. Private jets, supersonic aircraft, premium seating, air miles schemes etc. are banned. Air transport becomes more equitable as energy/emissions are less dominated by a tiny minority of frequent flyers, and more distributed amongst the global population. Airport expansion permitted in low-income countries and paused in high-income countries in favour of transforming airports/aircraft. For example, we might need more smaller, regional airports catering to smaller, slower flying regional electric or hydrogen aircraft but less international long-haul mega hub airports. This would enable a more distributed air transport system.
We develop a more integrated transport network. We make public transport on the ground more accessible, frequent, and cheaper. It becomes far easier to take public transport longer and even shorter distances. European aviation is replaced/augmented by a pan-continental bus/train service.
3. What are the challenges to realising those alternatives?
Participants thought that the greatest challenges are:
- Commercial interests and competition taking precedence over environmental issues.
- The media is heavily influenced by corporate interests which means greenwash and misinformation is common.
- This delays climate action by encouraging the public to believe everything is taken care of
- Politicians are influenced by the media, this public perception and by corporate lobbying to delay regulations.
- This leads to action which is focused on maximising profit in the short-term and minimising costs, taking precedence over more costly actions which would benefit the industry and planet in the long run.
Corporate greed was seen as a key issue, as IATA is just a club for airlines and lobbies government alongside groups such as ATAG. The UN body ICAO also has issues with lack of transparency in decision-making, lack of access to information by the media, undue influence of industry (“captured by producer interests”), restricted involvement of civil society and independent scientists, and political interference.
Tourism is great, but if it’s going to destroy the environment what’s the point? Those governments need to understand there is a self interest and self preservation in taking rapid climate action.
Our biggest concern is getting everybody on the same page, as all companies come up with ideas – but are they for the greater good, or just about making money? We often don’t think there’s a will or desire to do the right thing. No airport or airline is going to give up its competitive advantage and decide to voluntarily put limits on themselves whilst competitors grow. Emissions would be saved in one place but just increase in another.
There also isn’t the political wherewithal to actually do what’s required. Our political leaders are failing to demonstrate leadership on this topic, admit what’s required and get into the planning and negotiation of how to achieve it.
Greenwashing ties in with corporate greed. People think something good is actually happening and no more work is required. Airline greenwash marketing is everywhere and provides a false illusion of existing sustainability to travellers, workers, the public and our politicians.The extra flights aren’t mentioned which negate new technology, operations and fuel emissions improvements straight away. Corporations use greenwash and other false policy, technology, jobs and social justice narratives to control the public narrative through the mainstream media.
Then there is lobbying by aviation companies to the government. Politicians are too heavily influenced by corporations, and not by grassroots activists. Money and power prevent action.
There is also corporate policy preventing or threatening workers against saying anything and speaking out in public. This leads to a situation where many aviation workers don’t believe the sustainability strategy of the industry is credible and will say in private e.g. “offsets and SAF aren’t sustainable, surely that’s obvious” but won’t feel comfortable being quoted in public or by the media on this.
To an extent, the very existence of limited companies is an issue, where profit is the primary motive and care for people and the planet cannot be considered. Most airlines are there to make profit moving people from point A to B only. Everything is centred around delivering shareholder returns in the minimum timescale possible. The systemic short-term thinking of business and political leaders, who need to deliver a return before the next shareholder meeting or general election prevents us shouldering costs in the short-term which will provide stability in the medium- to long-term. This creates an inability to acknowledge and respond to long-term risks, in favour of short-term share price. The dividend profile for companies is on a horizon of 3 years generally, market forces are a few years. They don’t think 10-15 years’ time.
So for instance, this would prevent is pausing airport expansion now in order to invest our resources into R&D of radical future aircraft concepts which would take 15 years to develop, demonstrate and certify – then another couple of decades to ramp-up production and roll-out to the fleet. It also stops airlines and aerospace manufacturers designing aircraft that fly slower for lower energy consumption, as this would increase staffing costs (as employment per passenger mile would increase) and mean that less flights could potentially be performed in one day.
Another major challenge is cross-sector prioritisation of limited global resources for e.g. sustainably collected biomass and renewable energy. We aren’t the only industry out there, and we could argue for renewable energy but we will need to share that resource with other sectors – if we divert too much to aviation, this will massively impact the ability of other sectors to decarbonise and may push up the prices for basic commodities like food and electricity.
We also acknowledged that it’s hard to approach this from a workers perspective – as very few aviation-related trade union put any focus on climate change. Unions are often mostly interested or pre-occupied with inflation, pay and employment conditions. We need to change that as climate and the low-carbon transition is a massive jobs issue with lots of risks and opportunities for workers.
4. What are the opportunities for workers to collectively overcome those challenges?
The government and public response to the Covid-19 pandemic shows that we can take mass collective action if we want.
Aviation workers can speak out to to counter aviation-related greenwash in the media and in the industry which in turn influences politicians who produce the required regulations. We need to tell the truth. We have the option within trade unions to tell the truth and establish clear understanding and ensure workers are properly informed. This is where our idea for Aviation Workers’ Assemblies comes in.
As workers and trade unions, we can go to politicians and do what private companies are unwilling to do: ask for governments to step-in and regulate the industry in order to limit business-as-usual aviation expansion in a socially-just and equitable way that also supports workers both in air travel and tourism.
We can also keep speaking out and making changes from within our companies. We can improve education and awareness internally (we could focus on a small group of influential people first)?
From a corporate perspective there will be opportunities as companies go down the route of being ‘greener’ but only in the long-term if it’s genuine and isn’t for greenwashing their corporate performance. We need some leadership from within the industry. If somebody leads, they may gain an advantage and others will follow.
As 80% of people in the world have never been on a plane, we need to do much less flying within higher-income countries, in order to facilitate more essential flying and distribute flying more around the world. We could partner with lower-income countries, who may be more ‘tourism-dependent’ but also more at risk from the immediate impacts of the climate crisis in order to advocate for this.
We can develop narratives that show it is in our self-interest as workers to take rapid climate action and limit flying for the best interests of our industry and our employment. This tackles the current dominant narrative that environmental action will be at the detriment to jobs. We can present positive visions of the future for air travel that are filled with employment. Building on the idea of a war time mobilisation – we have a massive opportunity for jobs creation within the industry via tech development e.g of hydrogen planes and associated airports – it will only take money and political will.
If workers used the weight of industrial action and went on strike until the industry transformed – that is a huge amount of power we have. But we need ordinary people within these companies making common sense decisions to do what business leaders are incapable of within the current system.