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Stay grounded

Stay grounded

Flying will always come with a hefty carbon footprint. The best way to green the industry is to avoid it

Working life may have been transformed beyond recognition, but the planes grounded by the pandemic will be back in the air this year. British Airways’ owner predicts a return to profitability after a £3.5bn loss in 2021, while Qantas has revived plans for ultra-long haul flights between Sydney and New York. Flight shame? There’s little sign of it.

While aviation accounts for around 2.5 per cent of emissions, it draws outsized attention. One reason is that it’s a luxury we can’t afford to share. Just 11 per cent of the world’s population took a flight in 2018, and 4 per cent took an international flight. Even in rich countries, less than half the population uses air transport annually.

The airline industry has committed to net zero by 2050, but can aviation be fixed? There are some prickly challenges.

Fuel efficiency. While aircraft have steadily become more fuel efficient over time, aviation remains one of the hardest sectors to decarbonise, because of its reliance on fuels with high energy density and the lack of viable alternatives.

Airbus has unveiled plans for zero emissions commercial aircraft powered by hydrogen combustion. BA has begun using sustainable aviation fuel produced from sources such as recycled cooking oil. But the first of these alternatives is still futuristic while the latter remains more expensive than fossil fuels. The possible return of supersonic planes, burning five to seven times as much fuel as conventional flights, could significantly expand the industry’s impact on the planet.

International cooperation. By its nature, global aviation is a sector where states and airlines need to cooperate to bring down emissions. Yet international aviation isn’t counted towards countries’ climate targets (though domestic flights are). The International Civil Aviation Organisation, a UN agency, has set up an offsetting scheme known as CORSIA, but this is voluntary and there are good reasons to be sceptical about the value of offsets. 

As part of a package to address climate change, Brussels is proposing that fuel suppliers at EU airports be obliged to supply sustainable aviation fuel. Airlines have, predictably, called for government aid to avoid passing the higher costs of sustainable fuel onto customers.

Demand. Curbing demand is one of the few relatively straightforward solutions to the airlines’ emissions problem, yet politicians have ducked the challenge. There appears to be a willingness among the British public, at least, to make lifestyle changes for the common good. 

In an exclusive poll for Tortoise, more than a third of respondents say they are “already making a conscious effort” to decrease the number of flights they take due to climate change. The proportion who said they were already cutting back was lowest among the youngest surveyed, 18-24 year-olds, rising to around half of those aged 65 and over. A further 24 per cent said they were willing to cut down on air travel but had not done so yet. Asked whether they would support a ban on air travel where a replacement train journey of less than six hours was available, 33 per cent agreed.

The polling finds broad consensus among the British public that climate change is real, accompanied by concern about its negative impact. The polling by Stack Data Strategy surveyed 2500 people in the UK between 8 April and 13 April this year. We’re hosting a ThinkIn on flying this Thursday, with Anna Hughes of Flight Free UK and Sebastian Mikosz of IATA.

The shift in business life induced by the pandemic may have an impact on travel too. 

The consultancy Alix Partners suggested that while leisure travel may recover, business travel may “plateau at significantly lower levels” as companies embedded remote working. Technology offers alternatives, and not just Zoom; the paint company Akzo Nobel’s Singapore R&D team used augmented reality glasses to oversee production in a new Vietnam factory during the pandemic.

Carlos Lopez de la Osa, aviation technical advisor at the sustainable transport NGO Transport & Environment, said: “The Covid pandemic has shown that another way of doing business is possible.”

“While a certain amount of business travel will remain, reducing the amount of trips offers a quick and efficient way to reduce aviation emissions, having positive impact as well on companies’ productivity and results and on employees’ wellbeing.”

Maybe technology will save us after all, just not in the way we expect.

Tortoise Climate Summit

The world must cut emissions fast. At the second annual Climate Summit this Thursday, we will investigate whether a fair transition can help the world get to net zero faster. Do join us.

A global transition

In episode four of our myth-busting podcast series with the Centre for Net Zero and Octopus Energy, Lucy and Giles explore how every country – from China to Kenya – is going through its own transformation.


AGM season
Shareholders are increasing the pressure on European banks to clean up their act on the climate – but that pressure is not yet critical. On 29 April, just 18 per cent of Credit Suisse shareholders supported a proposal that the bank should disclose more information about how fast it plans to reduce exposure to coal, oil and gas. 77 per cent followed the board’s instruction to reject it. A few days later, nearly 20 per cent of Barclays shareholders disobeyed the bank’s board and rejected its climate plans at an annual general meeting in Manchester. But that’s not as bad as it sounds: for some, the plans were not green enough. ShareAction urged Barclays to update their climate proposal by the end of the year to include a 2030 deadline for all OECD countries to phase out coal. In both cases, the advocates of climate action made their voices heard.

science and tech

Pinpointing plastic
The first large-scale attempt to map the spread of plastic waste from space is now underway. Global Plastic Watch, a free public tool funded by the Australian Minderoo foundation, uses satellite imagery and AI to pinpoint dump sites as small as five by five metres and map them in real time. So far it’s detected and confirmed a total of 2,802 sites in 25 countries by looking out for the tell-tale signs of entry roads for heavy vehicles and textured areas showing mounds of waste. GPW’s analysis shows that more than 30 per cent of sites are within 250 metres of waterways and that, on average, 6,616 people live within one km of a site. Its methodology is currently undergoing review for publication in a scientific journal but the hope is that governments, NGOs, and communities will use the tool to start a policy debate similar to the one that emerged when deforestation started being tracked by satellite.


Beyond the Vale
Tesla has signed a deal with Vale, the world’s largest nickel supplier. It’s the latest attempt by Elon Musk to secure supplies for his car batteries that don’t come from China, which currently accounts for 80 per cent of the world’s nickel processing and owns 60 per cent of the world’s mines. There are also fears that supply could be cut from Russia, the world’s fourth largest nickel producer. Those concerns have led to a broader overseas push by Musk, who has been signing deals with miners in Argentina, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Australia and New Caledonia. In the latest deal, Tesla will purchase nickel from Vale’s mines in Canada, which produced 76,000 tonnes of the metal last year. That’s unlikely to be enough to quell Musk’s appetite.


A wing and more than a prayer
The populations of half the world’s 11,000 bird species are in decline, a study linking their loss to mankind’s impact on the environment has found. The US and Canada have lost 3 billion birds since 1970, while Europe has lost 600 million since 1980. That means ecosystems are missing the crucial services birds provide: spreading seeds and keeping populations of insects and small mammals in check. Alien species, over-hunting, pesticides and intensive agriculture have all played a part – but the scientists behind the study stress that they know what birds need to thrive. What’s lacking is the political will to save them.

Thanks for reading.

Jeevan Vasagar


Additional reporting by Ellen Halliday and Barney Macintyre.

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