A myth to debunk: “Green Aviation”

This blogpost builds on a chapter of our recent report “The ‘EU Climate Bank’ – Greenwashing or a banking revolution?” which uncovers some of the key areas where there are genuine risks that the European Investment Bank (EIB) will support “greenwashing practices”. Among these is the myth of green aviation, a myth that risks enabling further public investments to the aviation industry on the basis that it will be possible to make flying sustainable in the future.

The massive injection of public money to support the aviation industry illustrates the deep contradictions between discourses and political actions. While governments around Europe have claimed their support for a low-carbon transition in the wake of COVID-19, many of them have been quick in bailing out the aviation industry. Meanwhile, despite the EIB’s promise to align its operations with the Paris Agreement by the end of the year, the bank is still considering  supporting airport expansions.

Until recently, aviation has been one of the fastest-growing sources of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and the most climate-intensive mode of transport. When including the non-CO2 climate effects of aircraft, the aviation sector is responsible for an estimated 5 to 8% of anthropogenic global warming.

And while some improvements to reduce the emissions of planes might be possible, the options proposed thus far imply several problematic consequences and distract us from addressing the root of the problem: the growth of the aviation sector.

CORSIA: Offsetting carbon to dodge a bullet

In response to growing criticisms, the aviation industry and the United Nations agency ICAO have announced their intention to make international aviation greener. The proclaimed goal is carbon-neutral growth from 2020 onwards, defined in the program CORSIA (Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation). CORSIA consists of two main elements: efficiency improvement and new technologies (especially through “green fuels”), and carbon offsetting. 

The aviation industry has repeatedly received public money to find new technologies that might slightly cut the carbon emissions of flights. The EIB for instance loaned € 94 million to the Dutch company KLM for the acquisition of more efficient aircrafts. However, generating incremental efficiency improvements is becoming more and more difficult and costly. 

The aviation industry intends to rely on controversial “sustainable alternative fuels”, which are not always better for the climate than conventional kerosene. Biofuels such as palm oil and soy produce much higher emissions once land-use change, fertiliser and pesticide use, transport and processing are taken into account. The burning of fuels containing palm oil produces up to seven times more GHG than petroleum-based kerosene.

Less harmful fuels from agricultural waste are available only in limited quantities and will not be enough to satisfy the high demand from a variety of sectors. Fuels made from green hydrogen are technically feasible, but they would have to be produced using surplus renewable energy and we are still a long way from producing enough for agriculture, heating and other forms of transports.

Since technological solutions are limited, the ICAO strategy relies mostly on carbon offsets. Instead of reducing emissions, airlines are offsetting them by buying carbon credits from other companies and projects. Carbon offset projects include – among others – energy efficiency, using waste heat in industrial facilities, building hydropower plants that claim to prevent production of energy from fossil fuels, forest conservation projects and tree plantations and the distribution of climate-friendly cooking stoves to women in the Global South.

Offsetting: a band aid that leads nowhere

But a major drawback is that offsetting does not really reduce emissions: the additional emissions in one place are at best balanced out by additional prevention of emissions elsewhere. A study conducted by the Öko-Institut highlights the insufficiency of the ICAO proposal: to limit the average rise of temperature to significantly less than 2°C, emissions from international aviation must be at least 39% lower by 2030 than they were in 2005. Even in the best-case scenario offsetting would not be enough to avert a climate crisis.

In reality, buying carbon offsets leads to an increase of emissions. A central problem in offsetting is additionality: it is impossible by definition to verify whether a carbon credit represents an additional emission reduction, since the saving is based on a comparison with hypothetical emissions. Another study conducted by the Öko-Institut found that over three-quarters of Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) projects, the most important offset instrument under the Kyoto Protocol, were unlikely to have resulted in additional emissions reductions (meaning they would have probably been done anyway) and only 2% had a high likelihood of being categorised as “additional”.

Furthermore, the offset projects must permanently lock away the emissions for them to truly cancel out emissions. Carbon trading falsely presumes an equivalence between fossil carbon released from permanent storage underground, and carbon temporarily stored in trees. Offset schemes assume that forests will live for hundreds of years, ignoring the risks of fires, disease or even clearing to make way for roads, farming and other developments.

Offset projects such as tree plantations, hydroelectric power dams or forest conservation also often lead to an increase in conflicts, habitat degradation and displacement of indigenous peoples and their traditional land-use practices. As pointed out in a recent report by the NGO Stay Grounded Network, the whole rationale of offsetting is profoundly unjust: to enable a small portion of the world population to continue taking more and more flights, others are forced to change their way of life – those people whose emissions are already very low and who tend to experience the worst impacts of the climate crisis.

With its offset strategy, the aviation industry has been able to dodge effective measures to limit air travel, such as the abolition of aviation’s countless tax privileges. Kerosene, for example, is still not being taxed in most countries. 

Airports also engage in offsetting to greenwash their image and to counter opposition. Hundreds of airports are participating in an Airport Carbon Accreditation (ACA) programme, which allows them to be labelled carbon-neutral without having to reduce a single flight. The measures only target the GHG emissions emitted on the ground and rely extensively on offsetting emissions. Supporters of airport expansions often refer to the ACA scheme to deflect public criticism. This scheme is systematically mentioned in the EIB’s justification for the expansions of airports that have this accreditation.

Public money is already flowing to make airports appear “green” 

The EIB for example invested €86 million to improve the energy efficiency of AENA, one of the largest airport operators in Spain. While there is no doubt that energy efficiency is highly needed, EIB investments should rather focus on improving the energy efficiency of the public sector, railway and housing than giving green credentials to the aviation industry. Reducing the energy consumption of airports is marginal compared to the total induced emissions of the given airports (i.e. including indirect “Scope 3” emissions as per the Greenhouse Gas Protocol) through all the flights they are enabling.

Given how urgent it is to reduce GHG emissions, far-reaching expectations for future technology improvements should not guide decisions. Hopes in future technologies or fuels, and the false belief that offsets can help combat climate change, just postpone effective measures to reduce the growth in aviation. The role of a climate bank should not be to feed this trend, but rather to help develop other transport modes with higher positive impacts for citizens and their territories.

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