photo: Juhasz Imre, Creative Commons
Greta Thunberg and XR have re-energised the public fight against climate change and facilitated a new and additional protest movement. The call to recognize a ‘climate emergency’ has resonated with many politicians, especially those ‘closer to the ground’ but for that energy to translate into faster, bigger, more profound change it needs to become instrumental, meaning that it needs to bear on dis-aggregated, less rhetorical, more granular targets.
Here’s a proposition for a campaign bearing on aviation – DAC-only flying – to effect rapid and significant change in response to the ‘climate emergency’.
In this project, governments should impose a legal obligation on commercial aviation to offset carbon emissions using DAC (Direct Air Capture of CO2) technology, either with certificated credits granted for carbon locked into rock such as basalt, or, by using liquid fuels created by drawing CO2 from the ambient air (or both together). This would prevent commercial flying using fossil fuels free from offsets, or offsets which we cannot be certain will remain effective (eg tree planting). Flying with commercial airlines would be DAC-only.
Within the same system, the aviation industry should be made to invest, to pay for DAC technologies, so incentivising airlines to scale up these technologies and reduce their cost. The directed, focused development effort and attendant commercial risks would then be vertically integrated: airlines would in effect own their own fuel supply systems, although they would not need to become DAC technologists themselves. By ramping the introduction and level of the requirement, the trend-breaking impact on aviation R&D and business models could be as severe or gentle as it needed to be.
At present the aviation industry is nowhere near a path to sustainability. This proposal would convert offsetting from a voluntary practice that mitgates the impact of individual decisions to travel by air, into an end-game mechanism bearing on corporates, to rapidly contain and shrink the carbon footprint of aviation.
Air travel has long been an effective no-go or slow-go area for policy-makers attempting to coax their colleagues, governments and voters into taking meaningful action to reduce climate-changing ‘carbon’ pollution. Many governments – ours in the UK being only one good example – have long made top-line political commitments to significant de-carbonization while simultaneously planning to expand air travel as it was assumed to be essential for economic growth, and voter happiness. Air travel is a famous example of a behaviour which shifted in the lifetimes of older people alive today, from an activity restricted to a tiny elite, to a larger ‘jet set’ elite, to become mainstream and problematically cheaper in cash terms than more sustainable alternatives such as the train.
For decades, even the most dogged campaigns to oppose airport expansion have struggled, especially on climate-grounds. Back in 2006 I proposed that not-flying for the climate would become the ‘new save the whale’ as a socially testing issue, and it would become fashionable not to fly. Well maybe it is, only 13 years later! In reality, self-imposed restraint from flying has been confined to the most committed individuals and organizations, not even adopted as a norm by the majority of ‘ethical’ NGOs, and until recently, widely ignored as an option even among academics, and with breath-taking incongruence, even by many climate scientists.
An at least-vague-awareness of the climate impact of flying is however very widespread. The discomfort very many people feel when deciding to fly, is resolved by drawing on a wide spectrum of motivated reasoning, such as citing compensatory behaviours in the personal climate-guilt register such as “I do a lot to recycle”, “I’m now vegetarian”, “I buy renewable electricity”, to specific balancing investments such as “we bought an offset” or even higher ethical purpose [ethical excusers or Ethcusers] “as a campaigner for [ A ] I will make a greater difference for humanity by taking this flight than spending X time going by [sea/ rail/ bus/ camel/ bike]”.
This has attracted quite a bit of campaigner or advocate attention, aimed at finding ways to get people to voluntarily give up flying. That is necessary and important but as a political catalyst not in itself a reliable and rapid delivery route to end the aviation problem. To achieve that we must confine and bind the dynamic driving aviation expansion and drive out the emissions. The problem is cheap fossil fueled flights unconstrained (indeed encouraged) by public policy.
Proxies and Decoys
The air industry has of course titrated its PR efforts and investments in alternative fuels and technologies to try and maintain the equilibrium and hold the spectre of trend-breaking regulatory action at bay for as long as possible. Like other sectors before it, the industry has tried to maintain a focus on comparative metrics of efficiency, per passenger emissions etc, which allow it to continue business growth as usual, and draw attention away from ballooning emissions. Like the tobacco industry it has promoted ‘choice’ framing and offered the somewhat-less damaging options while signing up to vague commitments to be responsible. These proxies and decoys have enabled it to continue growing and polluting while industries such as power generation have been slowly ensnared in carbon reduction.
Now, with climate change indisuptably happening all around us, and Greta Thunberg and XR raising the level of social activity, flying is being more seriously questioned. Numerous reports attribute Thunberg’s influence to a rapid increase in demand for voluntary offsetting and governments are creeping towards more taxes. Yet experience with many other sectors, such as the spread of organic food, ‘green investment’, and sustainability certification for fish and forests, is that elective action can build a vanguard, prove concepts and, if values dynamics are engaged, transition behaviours from innovative to mainstream to ‘normal’ but it can take a long time. If regulators stand back, it will also leave an unengaged ‘tail’ of unsustainable practice which can be very large (eg the great majority) while generating ‘best practice’ examples that can be gamed by politicains who want to avoid taking regulatory action.
Contain and Shrink
I suggest that we need to convert offsetting from a voluntary practice that mitigates the impact of individual decisions to travel by air, into an end-game mechanism to rapidly contain and shrink the carbon footprint of aviation.
This is a vast subject but a handy reality-check on the sustainability trajectory of the aviation industry was provided by Evan Davis’s BBC programme The Bottom Line on the future of commercial aviation, broadcast in July 2019 [see excerpts below, at the end]. Talking to three experienced industry insiders, Davis gradually drew out confirmation that the industry is not on any credible trajectory to coming good on even its own climate commitments. I thought two telling points were the low volume of air travel that is for business, and the impact of the Swedish fylgskam or flight-shaming movement, which has ‘stagnated’ air travel growth in Sweden in around 18 months. As on so many previous environmental, Sweden along with California, still often acts as a pathfinder.
Davis mentioned that only 26% of travel at Heathrow Airport is for business. The vast bulk is recreational. Viewed with one assumption this makes the present air-travel business look politically unassailable but if you see it otherwise, as a social behaviour on the move like the real and rapid shift to eating less meat in the UK, it could indicate political vulnerability. In addition, while policy wonks think about tech and statistical sectors, the public encounters this through airline brands that, like banks, are often resented.
However, unlike eating every day or doing food shopping every week, the personal social touchpoints of flying are, for most of us, few. Most people in most countries don’t fly very often (Swedes fly a lot). This makes campaigns which rely on social contagion rather harder to sustain. On the other hand it also means that ‘doing the right thing’ can be relatively low cost in terms of personal investment, especially if some flying remains a possibility.
Re-Purposing Offset Technologies
It’s true that until recently, many long-term climate campaigners (me included) have resisted devoting much attention to carbon-capture proposals and the wide range of speculative ideas for planetary geo-engineering, and I think, for good reasons. For example because many proposals were for devices attached to continued or new use of fossil fuels in electricity production (eg Carbon Capture and Storage). In other cases they included vast and uncontrollable manipulation of ecosystems, such as ocean fertilisation. And in nearly all cases they could divert public concern and attention, and thus political attention and action, away from regulation and investment change required to decarbonize economies in proven ways such as switching to renewable energy, raising efficiency and cutting waste.
Actual climate change is now happening as anticipated by models and other science but far faster than was widely expected. What we feared to see in the second half of this century is already happening today. Movements like XR and Rapid Transition are partly inspired by this realisation but to exert change-making pressure they need dis-aggregated targets, instrumental campaigns rather than just protest, and propositions more granular than ‘nobody is doing anything’, ‘the system needs to change’ and ‘we need deep adaptation’. Aviation offers one such opportunity.
Air travel contributes a small part of the overall pollution causing climate change but it is growing rapidly and hugely important both politically and psychologically. It’s been largely untouched by the mainstreaming of ‘mitigation’ carbon-reduction measures that have been transforming electricity generation and biting into vehicle emissions (electric cars etc) and other sectors. Not only that but it’s been aspirational, emblematic of the ‘innocent’ pre-sustainability world in which air travel was associated with freedom and enjoyment, holidays and tourism, and business success, built on untramelled climate pollution.
Over-Ripe For Disruption
The aviation model is over-ripe for disruption, and in many ways could be far easier to deal with than other sectors such as land-use and farming or domestic energy use and terrestrial transport, for a number of reasons.
- Decisions about aircraft design and manufacture are mainly taken by just two giant companies, Airbus and Boeing (although as with other sectors, radical disruptive innovation may well come from new market entrants)
- At present the architecture of consumer choice is constrained: if we fly we have to buy the service from an airline. Almost none of us own our own aircraft (and regulators should act before many do).
- Jet fuel is already heavily regulated and monitored and therefore totally responsive to action through existing regulatory machinery
- Airlines are constrained by slots at a small number of airports, similar to rail services arriving and departing from railway termini. This also means that nation states or supra-national bodies like the EU potentially have leverage over the fleet mix – certain types of plane and fuels could be excluded or treated differently, as cities have done with ground transport.
- Because of this the problem is simple: essentially, more is progressively worse, less is progressively better, and it is the same everywhere: at present the world has one dominant model for air travel, one source and type of emissions, one set of technologies and few players. It is not a very ‘wicked’ problem.
So there are few decision makers, and a handful of regulators and companies make critical decisions, not the millions of airline users (international shipping is similar in that the vast number of cargo shippers and product end users all buy essentially the same service, and it has also remained comparatively untouched by climate policy). Thanks to technological domination and globalisation it is a far simpler problem than say, emissions from agriculture and other land uses which are hideously diverse and complex at multiple levels.
This makes aviation a straightforward way to deliver significant radical change, if one can convince regulators that it is urgent, and technically, economically and politically feasible.
Manifestation of public concern and attributable events are providing evidence of urgency. Meanwhile the track record and plans of the aviation industry show that its incremental iterative approach to change is more a PR shield than a radical change programme, and will not do the job. As Evan Davis concluded, “there is no plan” in the aviation industry which can reach sustainability.
Aside from the adoption issue (getting consumers to use it), a much-discussed problem with offsets is the lack of certainty in the fate of compensating carbon ostensibly captured and sequestered (stored) by NETs (Negative Emission Technologies). Even if one can guarantee that initial funding has the intended effect such as installing more renewables, that only cancels out the flight emissions if it displaces carbon electricity generation, which in turn requires a bounded regulatory system and an enforced carbon-elimination policy. Not many countries have that. Even less certain is what happens to offsetting such as tree planting or forest conservation (essential though I agree those are). It relies on having a guarantee that the initially captured carbon will remain in the soils or timber, and not be released, for instance, through burning or land clearance.
Of the many NETs under discussion, in development and in use, two seem to me to offer a potential route to divert the aviation industry from its current comfortable flightpath, which for the planet and humanity is disastrous. Both involve DAC or Direct Air Capture of CO2, also known as DACC, Direct Air Carbon Capture. A few years ago these were in the realm of ‘science fiction’ but no longer.
There are several main DAC technologies with different ways of locking carbon back into rocks, effectively mimicking the result of natural carbon storage as limestone and chalk were laid down with calcium carbonate derived from the bodies of small sea creatures, and coal, oil and gas were created from ancient plant material. In theory at least, such geological fixing of carbon should be more dependable than for instance, injecting CO2 into solution in old oil reservoirs. Geological fixing removes carbon from the biosphere and atmosphere whereas DAC used for instance to create a stream of CO2 gas taken from the exhaust of a gas fired power station will quickly release it again if that is used to make fizzy drinks.
The world’s first commercial DACC system is the Swiss-based Climeworks which describes itself as ‘a technology to reverse climate change’. Climeworks say (video) their vision is to capture 1% of global CO2 emissions in 2025, requiring 750,000 shipping containers of equipment, equivalent to the number passing through Shanghai in a fortnight. Double that and you have emissions from commercial aviation. In Iceland (video) Climeworks is working with other companies in a demonstration Carbfix project which reacts and fixes captured CO2 in basalt rock (a very widespread family of igneous rocks formed in areas of volcanic activity).
A well known objection to anything relying on DAC is cost. As Fuss et al note ‘Most of the discussion around DACCS potential has been dominated by cost considerations as the key parameter determining the viability of the technology’. Much effort is going into reducing cost so that carbon captured this way comes within the ballpark of existing carbon reduction options. Cheaper will indeed be better but rather than relying on limited government grant aid and venture capital raised by start-ups, this proposal is to make the aviation industry reliant on DACs, and for them to be locked into funding it, so long as conventional fuel is used.
Another application of DAC is to take CO2 from the air and recycle it into jet fuel. In 2018 National Geographic reported ‘Carbon Engineering, a Canadian company, is already making a liquid fuel by sucking carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the atmosphere and combining it with hydrogen from water. This is an engineering breakthrough on two fronts: A potentially cost-effective way to take CO2 out of the atmosphere to fight climate change and a potentially cost-competitive way to make gasoline, diesel, or jet fuel that doesn’t add any additional CO2 to the atmosphere’. It added ‘they hope the economics will be in their favor’. A similar process was backed by Bill Gates in the US in 2018, and in 2019 Climeworks announced that with others (EDL Anlagenbau Gesellschaft GmbH), it is to produce carbon-from-air jet fuel with Rotterdam The Hague Airport in the Netherlands.
Both these systems could be made manadatory within a DAC-only flying regime.
In short, under the system proposed above, aviation as a sector and flying as a consumer choice would become by ‘guaranteed’ DAC-offset-only. DAC-flying would be the only commercial option. This would:
- End reliance on individual consumer or individual corporate initaitives to buy offsets in order to mitigate and eliminate the impact of aviation on climate
- End regulator blind-eye tolerance of the aviation industry’s “hot air” PR based on illusory promises about iterative efficiency gains from a business as usual system
- Create a high-certainty stream of finance for mass development and deployment of DAC technologies with a powerful fast-track incentive, in a similar model to wartime technology-forcing policies
- Provide a simple policy option in international government discussions to ‘resolve’ and take emergency action on a key part of the climate crisis which until now has been very much ignored
- Give the aviation industry a bridging option as new technologies such as electric power are developed
- Be consistent with established regulatory models already shown to be effective in other sectors, such as Non Fossil Fuel Obligation schemes
- Enable governments to focus near-term climate-crisis public expenditure on more complicated and wicked problems such as those related to land-use, by chopping of a bit of the problem where the polluter can be made to pay
Of course this is not a fix to all the other problems associated with air travel. It is also highly likely that any significant near-term ramping up of the requirement to use DAC would mean that air travel would become more expensive but it would not become impossible, and those who travel by air most are both the richest and would pay most.
* Elements of this have been discussed in many blogs, learned reports and articles on aviation offsetting and NET technologies eg Royal Society 2009, Lomax et al 2015, Choice 2017, Sabine Fuss et al 2018, Wired 2018, Aviation Environment Federation 2019, I’m not aware of this particular proposal being made before but do let me know if it has been.
BBC ‘The Bottom Line’ programme Radio 4, 27 July 2019, presented by Evan Davis: ‘The Future of Commercial Aviation’ https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000713p – segment on emissions (second part of programme). Below is my rough transcript of excerpts.
Interviewees: (three trade insiders) Paul Kahn, president, Connectivity, Cobham Plc; Volodymyr Bilotkach, economist, author of The Economics of Airlines; Rob Morris, head of Global Consultancy, Ascend by Cirium. Interviewer: Evan Davis
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Those of you in the UK can listen to the programme here. Those outside the UK may struggle if you do not have a VPN. So here are my approximate transcript extracts (I found it hard to distinguish Paul Kahn and Rob Morris so I’ve notated them as C for contributor and V for Volodymyr and ED for Evan Davis – sadly there is no BBC transcript at the website)
* * *
C: growth is 5% per annum … there are about 25,000 passenger aircraft in service … it’s cost driven [by cheapness] we fly more for business and leisure
V: growth is about 10% per annum in Asia
ED: if we do nothing we expect it to continue to grow
C: expect 5% compound … 20% savings on emissions from new plane designs … 15% for a specific model, completely new aircraft
ED: is efficiency gain keeping up with passenger growth ?
C: it will take until 2026 before the new-engined [more efficient] fleet is bigger than than the existing fleet of aircraft
V: load factor has increased from 75% to 85% in 20 years, [airlines like] RyanAir achieve 95%, the fleet is growing overall 3.5% and [business] 5% due to productivity
[airlines and manufacturers are] reducing size, weight, power [per passenger per aircraft]
ED: Growth is exceeding capability of the industry to reduce its emissions – what are you guys going to do ? I mean come on – 2050 we are meant to be on net zero carbon. What is the aviation industry expecting to deliver by 2050?
C: IATA … ten years ago pledged to grow neutrally with respect to carbon by 2020. Its 2019 … haven’t been able to
V: [it was/meant to be] a 50% cut by 2050
ED: assume Paris Compatible by 2050 – how ?
C: must see some sort of break with technology – most significantly hybrid electric
C: transform design of the plane [no longer need engines under wings etc] – debate [will be] hybrid versus electric … batteries too heavy for long distance [or heavy load]
ED: so why is half a battery better?
C: for an air taxi it’s ok [but not larger longer flight aircraft]
V: once cars became more efficient people drove more – the rebound effect [I wonder if the same is happening in air travel] – airlines may think it’s [a] more efficient [aircraft] I can fly it more – what effect on emissions ?
C: some are growing at 6% – price stimulation of demand … [we] get to shaming of flying – whether [it’s right to] just have three or four long weekends in Eastern Europe from London, just because you can ?
ED: what you are saying is that you don’t have an answer. Hybrid plane – how far away ?
C: long haul ? 10 years at least
ED: [this is] not even remotely close
C: Airbus is flying a four engined jet [in Europe with one electric engine] hybrid [test] just starting
ED: so 2035 for big hybrid planes?
C: right order of magnitude … 14 new types of aircraft in next … years … more iterative than disruptive … [it’s a] challenge the industry is investing in
ED: this is the hot air we’re used to from the aviation industry [paraphrasing] “we’re taking this very seriosuly, we’re signing up to these targets, [and] by the way we missed it the last time we did it … but we are ever more ambitious in the targets were going to sign up to …” – there’s no plan
C: I agree but you still want to fly and so do I … [there is a] clear alignment between environmental impact and the operating costs for an airiline …
ED: Except, except, except I would rather be a big airline growing with more passengers …do we think that for the climate-conscious flyer, does it become a little more taboo ?
C: [it’s] beginning to happen – in Sweden growth in the industry has slowed or in fact stagnated very recently – so it will happen but the cat’s out of the bag and we travel for leisure and we travel for businesss …
ED: Well I just want to say, we don’t travel that much for business, I was shocked researching this to find that Heathrow is 26% of flights are for business – most are holiday or visiting friends or relatives
V: because the price is right so people fly, if you want people to stop flying just introduce a tax on them
ED: so … we are going to make a choice – you’re going to do your best to keep emissions per passenger very low, it’s not going to be enough with unconstrained growth and isn’t constrained non-growth the only way that the world will reconcile it’s stated targets on emissions and the aviation industry ?
C: technological progress can make a massive difference
ED: you haven’t managed to convince me you have any route to achieving sustainability [although note that] only 2% of emissions [CO2] are from aviation
C: fuel is 25% of airline’s overall costs and it’s now $US/gallon, when in 2011/12 it was $US3/gallon still aviation grew … made efficiencies
V: [the] CORSIA cap and trade offsetting ICAO initiative, interntional flights only, [in] 2030 pretty much manadatory except very poorest countries – it’s a start [see CORSIA wikipedia]
ED: what about carbon capture – does that remotely work as an option? Planting forests … ?
C: as V explained carbon pricing [has to be] applied to aviation, it’s all about introducing those sort of complex models to incentivise the right behaviour [and] the right investment choices for a more sustainable future.