Study raps industry and media for hyping up new technologies that over-promise on sustainable aviation
Fri 4 Mar 2016 – Industry and the media have hyped up new technological solutions that promise emissions reductions and so lead to an era of sustainable air travel but have yet to turn out to be feasible, finds a study by researchers at the University of Surrey in the UK. This reliance on technology in cutting emissions propagates a culture of inaction by industry and policymakers, they argue, and although technology can cut harmful emissions, it must be viewed alongside stronger regulation. The researchers, in collaboration with NHTV Breda in the Netherlands and the University of Otago, New Zealand, explored how new technologies such as alternative fuels, solar flight and a range of aircraft design options are presented by industry and media, alongside the subsequent level of success in practically applying these technologies.
The researchers argue in their study, published in the journal Transportation Research Part D, that discussions around these technologies creates what they consider to be “myths”, such as zero-emissions flight, and shields the aviation industry from closer scrutiny of its sustainability policies.
“Air travel has experienced substantial growth over the last 40 years. By 2050, energy use in aviation will have tripled, accounting for 19% of all transport energy use, compared to 11% in 2006,” said Dr Scott Cohen of the University of Surrey.
“This is in sharp contrast to pledges by industry to reduce flight emissions through technology, aiming for ‘zero-emission flight’ through overly hyped developments such as solar planes and hydrogen fuels.
“The way in which new technologies are presented constitutes a myth, a form of propaganda which denies the truth that progress in climate policy for aviation has stalled. The use of these technology myths by industry and government relieves anxiety that nothing is being done, by pointing to future ‘miracle’ solutions, which in reality are unfeasible.”
Cohen’s team looked at a range of new technologies and their media reporting, including aircraft laminar flow and composites, which the study says have only produced marginal fuel efficiency gains; blended wing body design; solar and electric powered aircraft; and alternative fuels derived from jatropha, animal fats, algae and hydrogen.
The team claims that solar flight has been presented by industry as key to sustainable flight, while the creators of the first solar plane to fly around the clock (Solar Impulse) admit that solar planes would never replace fuel-powered commercial flights.
“We see a definite pattern when it comes to the hyping of these technologies,” said Paul Peeters, Associate Professor Sustainable Transport and Tourism, NHTV Breda. “Take solar or electric flight. Through the media, the industry successfully presented these technologies as major breakthroughs that would have beneficial implications for future, zero-emission flight. In reality this is rhetoric that takes headlines away from the fact that emissions policy is failing, and continually points to a ‘better future’ just around the corner.
“While these inventions are fascinating from a research perspective, they won’t act as a panacea for the harmful, climate damaging emissions that the aviation industry is increasingly releasing into our atmosphere. Industry will always wish to present an optimistic view of their role in this issue, but our research has also shown that some politicians are complicit in propagating these myths and need to stop relying on rhetoric and start referring to facts.”
The study recognises that because aviation is a transnational activity, it is difficult to govern politically and as such, politicians may justify non-action beyond efficiency improvements achieved through technology as a way to avoid upsetting the ‘established order’. Policy measures could likely lead to resistance from lobby groups, industry, the public and political opposition, the researchers accept, but conclude that “aviation technology myths should be recognised, confronted and overcome as a critical step in the pathway to sustainable aviation climate policy.”