Busted: 5 tricks the aviation industry is playing on us to look green

Airlines around the world are vying for the greenest and brightest announcements recently. British Airways made the headlines with its plan to use sustainable aviation fuel on a commercial scale, Air France affirmed target a 12% reduction in emissions by 2030and Ryanair called itself “The least polluting airline in Europe“…

And yet, in the face of the climate crisis, something in this gleaming rhetoric leaves a bitter taste. An industry whose global greenhouse gas emissions have been growing by 3.4% per year in the past decade deceived us about its efforts to become a beacon responsible for climate protection?

Knowing that climatologists have warned that the the climatic limit of 1.5°C is about to be exceededlet’s take a closer look at the green promises and climate actions of airlines – and dissect their carbon jargon!

A new report from Greenpeace Central Eastern Europe reveals that climate claims by some of Europe’s largest airline groups that they will reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the future have little or no basis. Why? Firstly because these companies mainly rely on fake solutions and tricks that create the myth that aviation is green, while flying remains the most climate-damaging mode of transport per passenger per kilometer. Here are the five most used tricks and fake solutions in the industry:

1. The illusion that flying is “carbon neutral” by offsetting emissions

Globally, airlines have committed to becoming carbon neutral (or “net zero”) by 2050. Doesn’t that sound too bad? Think again ! The term “carbon neutral” does not actually mean reducing greenhouse gas emissions at source. Instead, it’s based on the illusion that someone can release greenhouse gases and balance them out by capturing those emissions elsewhere in the future, such as through carbon offset programs.

Neither planting trees nor avoiding deforestation will make a flight “carbon neutral”. Research has indeed shown that only 2% of offset projects have a high probability of leading to additional emission reductions. Nevertheless, airlines continue to push the illusion that we can fly carbon neutral or net zero.

Climatologists have warned that the concept of “net zero” and “carbon neutrality” is a “dangerous trap” which has “precipitated the destruction of the natural world by increased deforestation today, and greatly increases the risk of further devastation in the future”.

Abandoned planes sit on a flooded tarmac at Don Muang Domestic Airport which was closed for weeks due to extreme flooding in the Bangkok area (2011). © Athit Perawongmetha / Greenpeace

2. Overemphasis on “sustainable” aviation fuel as a solution

The airline industry likes to conjure up the magic word “sustainable aviation fuel (SAF)” which refers to a variety of relatively new types of jet fuel based on, for example, biomass or waste to replace kerosene based on fossil fuel. But the problem with so-called sustainable aviation fuel is that it is not sufficiently available and/or above all not really sustainable. While airlines present SAF as a key lever to decarbonize aviation, it only represents 0.05% of annual kerosene needed in the EU. In 2019, SAF accounted for no more than 0.1% of the total annual jet fuel consumption of the airlines analyzed in a new report from Greenpeace CEE. We think that SAF will represent only 19% of airline fuels by 2040 – which means that 81% will still be fossil fuel-based kerosene.

Not to mention that crop-based biofuels or so-called agrofuels made from food and feed crops like palm oil are often associated with deforestation and loss of biodiversity.

What about renewable e-kerosene, synthetic kerosene made from electricity and a carbon source? It is one of the few alternative fuels that can be produced in a relatively environmentally friendly way if the electricity comes from 100% renewable sources. But it’s far from a done deal and would require significant investment, research and development.

Rotterdam The Hague Airport in the Netherlands.  © Marten van Dijl / Greenpeace
A Transavia plane takes off at Rotterdam The Hague airport. © Marten van Dijl / Greenpeace

3. Excessive optimism that future technology will reduce emissions

The aviation industry and political leaders rely on excessive optimism for false technological solutions – and this comes at a high price: researchers warned that “tech myths” are holding back needed progress on climate policy for aviation. More fuel-efficient planes are not a false solution as such, but they will not be enough to achieve decarbonisation in time to limit global warming below 1.5°C. In an optimistic scenario, Greenpeace expects an improvement in efficiency (energy consumption per passenger-kilometre) by only 30% by 2050, not enough on its own to limit global warming below 1.5°C.

4. Greenwash to appear eco-responsible

As the world becomes more invested in tackling the climate emergency, the airline industry certainly wants us to think it’s part of the solution, not part of the problem. We see greenwashing everywhere in the area: of misleading communication and sponsorship of climate-friendly initiatives promoting solutions to address environmental and social deficiencies in the industry that are either wrong, insufficient, or both. There is a big gap between the airlines’ actual plans to reduce emissions and the promotion of “green” public relations by the airlines.

Paris-Charles De Gaulle Airport (CDG), France.  © Lorraine Turci / Greenpeace
The plane takes off at Paris-Charles de Gaulle airport. © Lorraine Turci / Greenpeace

5. Promoting frequent flights as a necessity and a cheap way to get around

Airline Advertisements pretend there is no climate emergency and no reason to reduce the number of flights. Airline advertising focuses heavily on low-cost flights, offers and promotions while evoking access to nature through flight, as found in a new report from Greenpeace Netherlands. The true cost of flying – the millions of tonnes of GHG emissions it causes – is not included in a low-cost fare. And let’s be honest: an individual plane ticket may be cheap, but that’s only because airlines are already benefiting from taxpayers’ money through deep tax cuts and government subsidies.

Demonstration at Schiphol Airport in the Netherlands.  © Marten van Dijl / Greenpeace
Greenpeace Netherlands activist Faiza Oulahsen delivers a speech at the event. Greenpeace Netherlands is organizing a 2-day event called “Protestival” at Schiphol Airport, the largest duty-free gas station in the Netherlands. Hundreds of activists join the activity at the airport to demand a climate action plan for the climate emergency. © Marten van Dijl / Greenpeace

Where does this lead us?

Unfortunately for the planet and for us the people, the airlines are currently getting away with their tricks and fake solutions. Without political action to counter its growth prospects, the aviation industry could become one of the most emitting sectors in the world.

At the same time, no other means of transport in Europe has been so heavily subsidized with public money through VAT and tax exemptions, state aid, bailouts and loans, as well as aid for research and development. This has distorted markets for decades in favor of aviation over green mobility. For example, airlines are exempt from kerosene taxes and VAT on international tickets, while railway companies pay high energy taxes and train tolls. On top of that, European airlines still receive a large part of their emissions allowances – pollution permits under the EU’s emissions trading scheme – for free. There is a serious lack of strict laws to mitigate airline GHG emissions – and that’s a big deal!

Activists demand climate bailout at Schiphol, Amsterdam.  © Marten van Dijl / Greenpeace
May 2020: Activists from Greenpeace Netherlands pedal on the runway at Schiphol airport demanding that the Dutch government regulate the billions that are being spent supporting big polluting industries during the pandemic. © Marten van Dijl / Greenpeace

What needs to be done to align aviation with the Paris Climate Objectives?

  1. There is no way around the need to reduce flights to reach zero emissions by 2040. Greenpeace calculated that to keep global warming below 1.5°C, European airlines will have to reduce their flights by 2% per year.
  1. Airlines must abandon the illusion of “carbon neutrality”, dispel the myth of “green flying” and stop promoting false solutions that lull everyone into a false sense of security that airlines already have their climate damage under control . Together we can demand that the EU and European governments put an end to greenwashing in the aviation sector: sign this European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) launched by Greenpeace, together with the New Weather Institute and 30 other partners, to ban fossil fuel advertisements.
  1. We must stop giving free permits to pollute and taxpayers’ money to the sector and make him pay for his pollution. It is time for the EU to phase out all fossil fuel subsidies for the aviation sector (including for airports) and ensure that the kerosene tax is strengthened and quickly implemented on all flights .
  1. Boost rail and public transport! We need to start building a mobility system that’s good for the planet and people by phasing out fossil fuel-powered transport. In doing so, we must also ensure a a just transition for aviation workers and an end to growing instability in working conditions – and leave no one behind.

Herwig Schuster is a transport expert for the European Mobility for All campaign, based in Greenpeace Central and Eastern Europe’s office in Austria.

/Public release. This material from the original organization/authors may be ad hoc in nature, edited for clarity, style and length. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author or authors.View Full here.

Comments are closed.