Aviation is heading for a crash landing. The projected growth of aviation is incompatible with safe levels of global warming – this needs to change, which means we’ll need to change how we fly.
Air traffic has been doubling every 15 years.
Technology can’t be relied on to decarbonise aviation. There are no technologies available that can be developed and scaled in the necessary timescales to prevent dangerous levels of global warming
Technology won’t save us
We need to fight for a Just Transition of Aviation. It’s down to us as workers to produce our own vision for the future of aviation.
Industry leaders ignore this reality due to short term thinking
We are advocating for Workers’ Assemblies within Trade Unions. There can be no climate justice without worker justice. And there will be no worker justice without listening to the voice of workers. Workers need to be consulted, and a transition will ideally be worker-led and centred.
Listen to the voice of workers
1. Aviation is heading for a crash landing.
Why does Aviation need to transform?
The current unchecked growth of aviation poses a threat to job security. If we exceed a safe level of global warming, then we may have to stop flying completely.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is clear that we need to rapidly reduce emissions to have any chance of preventing runaway global warming.
This applies to all sectors of the economy, including aviation. In fact, progress has been too slow across the board – and with global emissions continuing to rise, we may blow our carbon budget for 1.5degC of global warming within the next decade.
Aviation is currently on a trajectory of emissions growth, and there are no credible technologies available or effective policies proposed for reducing this.
This needs to change, so that emissions begin to decrease, and this will involve changing how we fly.
At Safe Landing, we think this transformation is inevitable – it’s not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’.
What will this transformation involve?
Overall, we’ll need to use far less energy and produce less emissions.
It’s likely that flying will be more expensive via a range of policies such as aviation emissions pricing, frequent flyer levies, increasing jet fuel tax for fossil fuel, and mandates for more expensive alternative fuels. All of these have been recommended by the UK Citizens’ Assembly on Climate Change.
In addition, or if those policies don’t work, it’s likely we’ll also need to limit airport and airline capacity. Particularly in higher-income countries where the population already flies far more regularly than the global average.
Either way, it is very likely that air miles must decrease and we’ll need to travel:
- less frequently
- less fast
- less far
We may also fly in smaller, shorter-range electric and hydrogen aircraft. However, those still need to be developed. Existing airports and airlines will also need to be transformed to make them compatible – but this isn’t currently happening.
How will the transformation affect aviation workers?
All aviation workers are likely to be impacted in some way.
It’s likely that flying will continue in some form, but not at the growth levels of previous decades, and we may need degrowth of total air miles.
It might be that we fly less frequently, fast, and far – and air miles reduce by some percentage, but jobs don’t need to reduce as this happens.
This is because there should be a lot of work required to transform aviation from high- to low-emissions: developing new technology, reconfiguring airports and re-training staff within the sector. For example, if there is a significant reduction in fast, long-haul travel in large aircraft, this may be replaced by shorter-range travel in smaller electric or hydrogen aircraft.
However, it’s important to be honest and also highlight that a transition of workers to other sectors may be required. This will be particularly true if the sector continues dangerous ‘business-as-usual’ air traffic growth and fails to right-size itself to become fit for the future.
This underlines the importance for aviation workers to develop their own understanding of the future of air travel and for Trade Unions to demand that corporate leaders produce more realistic plans. This is why it’s important to campaign for a Just Transition so that any transition is done on our terms.
2. Technology won’t save us.
Globally, the civil aviation industry plans to double in size before 2040 and possibly again by 2050. If this happens, we could see aviation fuel consumption and therefore greenhouse gas emissions triple by 2050. Both corporate and government leaders use unrealistic and distracting promises of technological solutions to greenwash this growth. On this page, we examine these claims and debunk common myths and misconceptions using a set of factsheets produced by the campaign group Stay Grounded, which summarise evidence from technical, academic and industry sources.
Key players within the global civil aviation industry have recently released a series of joint statements declaring a shared sustainability strategy. Airline lobby groups such as ATAG, and fossil fuel companies such as Shell have also produced aviation roadmaps with similar strategies. Despite the dip caused by Covid-19, these all show an unequivocal return to pre-pandemic levels of flying within a few years, and then a return to the rapid air traffic growth of previous decades. This growth is underpinned by the same repeating elements: conventional aircraft and airline efficiency improvements, alternative technology such as electric or hydrogen powered aircraft, and alternative jet fuels such as biofuel and electrofuels.
Aircraft efficiency refers to the amount of fuel burned (and emissions produced) by an aircraft in order to transport its payload (passengers or cargo) a given distance (e.g. one kilometre). Efficiency improvements (i.e. reductions in fuel burn) are achieved by optimising the design of the aircraft, the engines, the airline operations (e.g. the flightpath) and by increasing the amount of passengers or cargo carried onboard the aircraft. Efficiency – the mass of fuel per passenger-km – is directly proportional to CO2 emissions per passenger-km, with 1kg of fuel emitting 3.16kg of CO2.
However, history shows us that “efficiency improvements” have always been accompanied by increased emissions. This is because efficiency improvements also reduce the cost of flying and contribute to air traffic growth, leading to emissions growth which far outpaces the emissions reductions from efficiency gains. The efficiency gains can also be cancelled out by airlines upgrading the class of seats, and by flying further or faster which reduces efficiency.
The figure above shows that in a poorly-regulated industry, efficiency improvements may facilitate market growth and increase total emissions, not reduce them. This is known as Jevon’s Paradox. Thus, efficiency gains alone cannot be relied upon to decarbonise the industry – we also need regulations to limit air traffic.
The Earth’s atmosphere isn’t affected by individual aircraft efficiency, but instead by total emissions produced. This has been rapidly increasing, rather than decreasing.
See ‘Stay Grounded’ fact sheet on Aircraft Efficiency here for more info and references.
Electric aircraft propulsion systems typically involve aircraft propulsors (propellers, or fan blades) that are driven by electric motors.
In “fully-electric” aircraft, these motors are powered by electrical energy provided directly from batteries. Often such aircraft are described as “zero emissions” as they have zero tailpipe emissions but this is somewhat of a misnomer as the production and re-charging emissions of batteries will remain significant for the foreseeable future.
Current batteries and electrical systems are far too heavy to displace most jet fuel and combustion engines, so it’s likely that only very small electric aircraft will be certified before 2050. This is reflected by the fact that most companies attempting to certify electric aircraft during the 2020s are developing aircraft carrying less than 10 passengers which don’t generally fit the current configuration of most airports. In addition, unlike a fuel tank where the weight decreases as fuel is burned during the flight, a battery does not become lighter during the trip. These issues further impact the payload and range capability of the aircraft.
Currently this means that electric aircraft will likely only be viable for short flights under 1,000 km by 2050 which account for a small fraction of aviation CO2 emissions. However, the scope to decarbonise overall aviation emissions is even more limited because, although electric aircraft can be justified for some niche cases in regions where ground transport options are poor, such as remote island or mountainous regions – everywhere else short-haul flights can be substituted by more efficient public transport options on the ground.
See ‘Stay Grounded’ fact sheet on Electric Aircraft here for more info and references.
Hydrogen can either be burned in a jet engine (hydrogen combustion) or used to generate electricity in a fuel cell to power a propeller (hydrogen-electric). It is produced from other energy sources, is very energy-intensive to produce, and is stored in liquid form at -253°C. While hydrogen power produces zero CO2 emissions, other non-CO2 emissions such as nitrogen oxides (NOx), water vapour and contrails are still produced which result in global heating. It’s estimated that hydrogen combustion could reduce the total climate impact by only 50-75% and hydrogen fuel cells by 75-90% versus jet fuel.
The biggest issue with hydrogen aircraft is the timescales. Novel aircraft have a typical design, development and certification time of 15-20 years and a lifetime of more than 25 years. The production of a new fleet of hydrogen aircraft and conversion of airport infrastructure would start too late and take too long to have any significant impact on aviation decarbonisation over the next two crucial decades.
Hydrogen flight is unproven, with many technical and safety aspects yet to be understood. The main design issue is fuel storage as even liquid hydrogen has a volume over four times larger than jet fuel for an equivalent amount of energy. Boeing are sceptical and even Airbus has admitted that hydrogen will not be widely used in planes before 2050, stating that only regional 50-100 seaters would be ready for hydrogen in the 2030s, a small market with a small share of emissions. If airlines transition to using a large amount of such aircraft, this will substantially affect their operations and the design of airport infrastructure (e.g. runways, gates, terminals, fuelling and maintenance requirements). It would therefore be sensible to halt aviation expansion plans until we know to what extent hydrogen aircraft will be used.
The final issue is that producing green hydrogen would require huge renewable electricity resources, which are currently in scarce supply and will remain so for some time. The EU have calculated (on page 44) that in a scenario where 40% of the airline fleet would be converted to liquid hydrogen in 2050 and the rest of the fleet would use e-fuels, the resulting electricity demand would be equal to the current total worldwide electricity production and about four times the production of renewable electricity in 2018. As demand for electricity grows so does the risk that renewable electricity supply will not be able to match it, which will increase the risk of using non-renewable power. This demonstrates that even though Hydrogen and e-fuel powered aircraft are possible, we will also have to fly less and in a way that reduces total energy use – to prevent the energy requirement from becoming unmeetable.
See ‘Stay Grounded’ fact sheet on Hydrogen Aircraft here for more info and references.
Alternative Jet Fuels or “SAF”
Alternative jet fuels or so-called “Sustainable Aviation Fuels” (SAF) are liquid hydrocarbon fuels that can be used with existing aircraft in place of kerosene produced from fossil fuels.
The premise of their sustainability is to create fuel using CO2 taken from the atmosphere, rather than using fossil fuels extracted from deep underground that will then emit additional CO2 to the atmosphere when burned. The argument is that blending these fuels with fossil fuels would therefore reduce emissions.
They can be broadly categorised into two varieties:
- Biofuels – produced from biomass sources
- Electro-fuels (e-fuels) – produced from electricity
While it’s promised that these fuels could be scaled-up rapidly to a significant percentage of total consumption, this has already been promised by the industry for more than a decade but currently less than 0.01% of jet fuel is from alternative sources. Second generation biofuels and e-fuels are likely to only replace a small percentage of fossil fuel use in the near-future.
Even if scaled up further, alternative jet fuels will still cost far more than kerosene. Biofuel from “waste oil” is the most cost competitive but still costs double the price and other biofuel and e-fuel processes cost as much as eight times the price. The only way the aviation industry can continue to grow whilst using larger quantities of alternative jet fuels, would be to obtain large government subsidies for their production. According to a 2019 ICAO study, 328 new large bio-refineries would need to be built every year by 2035, at a cost of US$29-115 billion a year to supply international aviation alone. However, investing in such refineries would pose a huge risk to taxpayer money as it’s unlikely, for the reasons given here, that alternative jet fuels will always be viewed as “sustainable”. This could result in facilities turning into “stranded assets”.
The industry claims that “SAF can reduce emissions by up to 80% during its full life cycle”. However, GHG savings of only 60% have been proposed at national levels as a threshold for “SAF” and fuels eligible under the international CORSIA scheme can have savings as low as 10%. In addition, aviation also produces non-CO2 emissions such as contrails which are estimated to cause a greater global heating effect than aviation CO2. Recent studies have shown that while alternative jet fuels can contribute to reducing non-CO2 emissions, they will only be partially reduced. So even where they are used in place of fossil fuel, significant emissions will still be generated.
Biofuel production can use various sources of biomass as an input. First generation biofuels use agricultural crops. Second generation biofuels use industrial, agricultural, municipal or household waste, such as: used cooking oil, fat, corn husks, forest resources, or food waste.
The aviation industry often claims that it will only use second generation biofuels from “sustainable waste” that won’t compete with agriculture or cause adverse environmental or social impacts. However, it hasn’t ruled out the use of first generation biofuels, which can cause land-use change emissions, biodiversity loss, rising food prices, and water scarcity. There are plans for huge “SAF” refineries in Paraguay using soybeans as a feedstock and such fuels are permitted in the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA), which is the only internationally agreed policy and runs until 2035. There is a very limited quantity of “sustainable waste” available globally for second generation biofuels – this could also be used more efficiently to decarbonise other sectors and there are many competing uses such as for organic fertiliser, biodiesel for ground-based transport, and Bioenergy Carbon Capture & Storage (BECCS).
See ‘Stay Grounded’ fact sheet on Biofuels here for more info and references.
E-fuels can be produced by combining hydrogen with carbon to create a liquid hydrocarbon. Hydrogen must be extracted from water by electrolysis and carbon extracted from the air using a process called ‘Direct Air Capture’ (DAC). These can then be combined into a hydrocarbon fuel using a chemical process called Fischer-Tropsch (FT) synthesis. In order to minimise emissions, these processes must all be powered with renewable energy.
Although the technology has been demonstrated, it’s still at the pilot stage and several decades of heavy investment would be needed to scale up production. The production is also extremely energy-intensive. No more than about 10% of the renewable electricity input would eventually be converted into thrust to move an aircraft, whereas it can be used far more efficiently in many other applications as shown by the UK Climate Change Committee – see Figure 2.
In a scenario where 100% of the airliner fleet would use e-fuels, the resulting electricity demand would be 2.5 times higher than current global renewable energy production and about 5 times higher if air traffic growth continues to 2050. As demand for electricity grows, so does the risk that renewable electricity supply won’t be able to match it, prolonging the use of fossil fuels.
See ‘Stay Grounded’ fact sheet on E-fuels here for more info and references.
All technical options for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from aviation have serious limitations. While the development of new technologies is helpful, it cannot be an excuse to delay immediate emissions reductions to mitigate the climate crisis and meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. The only way to effectively reduce aviation emissions is to reduce air travel.
3. We need to fight for a Just Transition of Aviation.
If Governments and Companies tell us we can continue as normal, why shouldn’t we trust them?
Trade Unions don’t usually trust the actions of their corporate leaders when it comes to things like pay and employment terms & conditions etc. – so why trust them unconditionally on sustainability strategy?
Corporate leaders and CEOs are financially rewarded based on short-term results such as ‘quarterly profits’. They have a time horizon of a few months to a few years at most.
On the other hand, most workers are financially rewarded for their career progression within the industry. They may hope to have a safe and secure job for 20-40 more years.
This dynamic means that corporate leaders are incentivised to project industry growth and ignore long-term risks. Why would they care about an industry crash in 10 years time if they will most likely have retired and taken their leaving bonuses by then?
As workers, we need to recognise this dynamic – the system is not rigged to prioritise long-term job stability. Nobody will do that for us: so we need to do it ourselves.
What is a ‘Just Transition’?
Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, workers have paid the price of industrial transitions through loss of livelihoods or worsening labour conditions. For example, closure of coal mines around the United Kingdom which devastated many communities.
An ‘unjust’ transition is unplanned and chaotic. It happens by disaster with an industry suddenly shutting down and workers being left to fend for themselves.
A ‘just’ transition involves early planning so that it can be designed in advance, and provides the maximum chance of happening smoothly: “by design, rather than by disaster”. It’s an industrial transition that doesn’t come at a cost for workers and communities. Rather, they should be key stakeholders during the process and should benefit from it. It involves workers being informed, consulted and having their needs recognised.
Trade Unions must be engaged: acknowledging the justified fear of unemployment and loss of livelihoods is the only way to build support for climate action. We must clearly show how a well-planned transition will benefit workers.
It’s also important to counter the ‘jobs’ narrative used to argue for continuous industry growth. We must debunk the concept that increased employment and climate action are in direct competition with each other. The real threat to job security is not degrowth, but climate breakdown leading to a major industry crash.
There is still time for a just, worker-led transition of aviation: the sooner we start, the better for both people and the planet.
What is our explanation of a ‘Just Transition’ for Aviation?
A just transition of aviation has the potential to bring about a revolution in how we travel that will not only make flying fit-for-the-future, but could also increase employment per passenger due to smaller, slower aircraft.
The first stage of transition is to put the brakes on business-as-usual industry expansion. If we need a major transition, then we shouldn’t waste our limited time and resources investing further in the wrong aircraft and airport infrastructure.
Next, we should start adapting immediately. If we wait too long to introduce regulations, then they’ll need to be implemented very steeply and sharply. If we need new policies, then these should be introduced as soon as possible so that they can be ramped up gradually. A smooth transition is a good transition, but this will only be possible by starting early. It can only be ‘just’ if it is also rapid enough to minimise the consequences of climate breakdown.
If an industry adapts early to make itself ‘future fit’, then this will minimise the need for workers to transition out-of-sector. There were almost 9 trillion passenger-kilometres flown in 2019, and despite the impact of Covid-19, Airbus and Boeing still predict this will double to 18 trillion before 2040. However, if we need to reduce air traffic, then this will involve buying too many aircraft, building too many runways, and training too many staff for the wrong roles. If air traffic then collapses, aviation companies will need to cut their losses and will be more likely to force redundancies and worse employment conditions onto workers.
Finally, workers need to be informed and consulted throughout the process. There can be no climate justice without worker justice. And there will be no worker justice without listening to the voice of workers. We are advocating for Workers’ Assemblies within trade unions to do exactly this.
4. What is a “Workers’ Assembly”?
The idea of Workers’ Assemblies builds on the concept of Citizens’ Assemblies such as the UK-wide Citizens’ Assembly on Climate Change which took place in 2020. The idea is to facilitate citizens to become properly informed about an issue, deliberate collectively over potential solutions, and propose recommendations that political leaders may feel they couldn’t otherwise enact. The aim is to overcome the issue of leaders feeling unable to make sensible long-term decisions, in case it affects their short-term popularity.
Workers’ Assemblies could operate in a similar manner and be implemented within aviation-related Trade Unions. Participants would first learn from specialists about the climate impact of aviation and the various options for reducing it. They would take time to discuss this with one another, before making recommendations which could then form Trade Union policy and demands.
At Safe Landing, we encourage all Trade Unions to consider this concept, and ideally collaborate with other aviation-related Trade Unions. We need to draw on all experience, and build support from workers across the sector. Ultimately, we should produce an alternative vision for the future of aviation, which can be taken to industry leaders and policy makers.