Climate change and bold action on green policies can drive a third golden age of aviation
Fri 31 Aug 2012 – In every sector, the increasing importance of sustainability will shape the economy and society. Business has the potential to be the primary agent to lead change – but only if the policy framework is right. This is particularly true of aviation where the power to set the framework is with the politicians. The aviation industry can choose to resist or take an active role in shaping the future, writes Peter McManners.
Aviation is one of the fastest-growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions. These emissions, particularly carbon dioxide (CO2) but also other pollutants, are playing a part in damaging the atmosphere and causing changes to the climate. Concern is growing and evidence that the problems could be serious is starting to emerge, but society is not yet ready to take the action that will reconcile people’s addiction to flying with sound environmental policy. While climate change is seen as a problem that will affect another generation, sometime in the future, politicians lack a compelling reason to risk unpopularity by changing policy and controlling the projected emissions from aviation.
The debate about emissions from aviation is highly polarised. On one side, there are a small group of environmentalists who choose not to fly and seek to persuade others to follow their example. Opposing them are the majority of the public who like to fly and to fly cheaply; business and policy-makers defending aviation’s role in the economy; and the aviation industry with high sunk costs and working to tight margins. The oddity of this standoff is that it is possible to deliver green aviation but it requires environmentalists to pull back from blinkered opposition to engage in seeking change, and all stakeholders to accept that emissions from aviation will have to be curtailed. Bringing the debate together in this way provides the circumstances for a successful outcome.
The development of aviation through the course of the twentieth century was inspiring, from the Wright Brothers’ first tentative flight to the launch of the space age. Throughout this period the key developments often came about out of crisis such as the leap in capabilities resulting from the two world wars. There was a golden age of aviation after the First World War when records were set as adventurers competed to be first to fly across the major oceans and push the boundaries of the early rudimentary flying machines. The battle for supremacy in the skies of the Second World led to the development of the jet engine and launched the Second Golden Age of aviation using the glut of ex-military aircraft to launch airlines with tickets affordable to a much wider range of people.
The next leap forward, in this century, could well be in response to the climate crisis. Such an advance would require reform of the linchpin of aviation policy, the Convention on International Civil Aviation, agreed in Chicago in December 1944. This convention still rules international aviation today and holds the industry in an outdated policy framework in which aviation fuel for international flights is, in effect, free of tax. This not only boosts growth (as the delegates at Chicago in 1944 intended) but also acts as a barrier to the development of aviation that is less reliant on fossil fuel. With fuel so cheap, it is not cost effective to make substantial investments in greener aviation.
At the centre of the debate about the future of aviation is the growth of low-cost aviation. The dilemma is that making flying accessible to ever more people also shifts aviation onto a trajectory of massive increase in overall emissions. It is becoming clear that the current mould of aviation must be broken but the situation is not seen as a crisis and policy-makers are slow to appreciate the degree of change required. There are measures under discussion ranging from improved aircraft efficiency and better air traffic control to operational efficiencies and the introduction of biofuel. These incremental measures are improvements but are too little, too late compared with the bold action required to transform aviation.
Biofuel in aviation is a particularly thorny subject. The industry’s aspirations to cut net emissions rely heavily on replacing jet fuel with biojet. There are significant technical and commercial challenges to the production of biojet in the quantities required but, more importantly, it relies on winning the argument that limited biofuel resources should be earmarked for aviation. This reasoning is supported by many in the aviation industry and would allow gross emissions to continue on the current upward trajectory. However, this stance is starting to look threadbare and will be increasingly difficult to defend.
Looking to the future, there will come a time when it is economically viable to replace conventional aircraft with a fleet of green air vehicles, thus launching the Third Golden Age of aviation. This can come about sooner rather than later through unleashing the entrepreneurs who can make the vision of sustainable aviation a reality. The concepts and capabilities are feasible but without an appropriate policy framework the next generation of air vehicles are not commercially viable, remaining on the drawing board and hidden away in research centres. There is a reluctance to admit, in the aviation industry, that it could be transformed, because the transition will bring uncertainty and is likely to be painful for the current industry incumbents and their shareholders.
Aviation is a highly regulated and conservative industry with aircraft manufacturers reluctant to shift from the standard configurations. Pushing ahead with novel new designs is not worth the risk unless the benefits are large. Green aviation needs a radically different business case in order to take off, and this will not be forthcoming until policy changes. The Chicago convention set up procedures to introduce changes to the rules but is not designed to facilitate altering the fundamental principles. Politicians will need to get involved, mirroring the process that established the convention in 1944.
Once it becomes clear to the majority of people that the impact of climate change will be significant, with damaging consequences for society, politicians will be forced to move quickly beyond the painstaking climate debate taking place under the auspices of the United Nations. The circumstances will arise for bold action and politicians will be searching for easy targets. This is when calls for a new convention on civil aviation will be heeded, allowing the development of a policy framework fit for the twenty-first century.
The transition to twenty-first century aviation will not be smooth, and may not be easy, requiring a break with the policy of the past. As world leaders continue to fail to agree effective controls on CO2 emissions, and direct evidence of climate change grows stronger, the debate will turn from talk about long-term targets to near-term urgent action. That will be when the future of twenty-first century aviation will be decided.
The aviation industry needs to be careful. It has been possible, so far, to defend the status quo and argue that aviation is an exception that needs special treatment. Policy makers are listening and tending towards acceptance of the industry’s argument but this is unlikely to survive scrutiny when the possible alternatives are understood better. It is understandable that those inside the industry, steeped in its ways, will point out why this cannot be done. We need people inside the industry to look beyond this knee-jerk reaction, and start to plan real change and help to shape a policy framework with real ambition. Instead of crafting arguments that explain why it cannot be done, industry experts should help to refine policy that will deliver the Third Golden Age of aviation.
Peter McManners is an Executive Fellow of Henley Business School, Reading University in the UK. He writes on society, the economy and environmental stewardship. He first started writing about climate change in 2002 with a prize-winning entry in the Oxford Science Writing competition titled ‘Is Carbon the Culprit?’ His books include ‘Adapt and Thrive: The Sustainable Revolution’, ‘Victim of Success: Civilization at Risk’ and ‘Green Outcomes in the Real World’. His latest book, from which this article is based,‘Fly and Be Damned: What now for aviation and climate change?’is published by Zed Books, ISBN: 9781848139749.