Count your chickens
Believing the announcements made by aviation companies, seeing the promotions for decarbonised flights in 2050 and listening to the latest French Minister for Transport, we might think that aviation is on the good way to fight global warming.
There is only one step between decarbonising a flight and the whole aviation!
So it is when ATAG presents its plan, Waypoint 2050, as aligned with the goals of limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C while continuing to « contribute to global connectivity ». Fabulous! We can now go back travelling around the world with confidence, everything is under control! Because ATAG says so!
Like many well-informed people, we are aware of the issues and challenges that decarbonisation represents for our sector, so we have put our ears to the ground and opened our eyes.
Are chikens still alive ?
Waypoint 2050, for the uninitiated, is the air traffic industry decarbonisation plan worked on for three years by the ATAG (Air Transport Action Group which includes Airbus, ATR, Boeing, SAFRAN and others). This plan is of course public and we will not reveal anything confidential in this article. You can get the presentation document here. You will read that, after stating that it is in line with the scenarios that would allow us to stay below 1.5°C of warming in 2050, ATAG presents the graph below representing the future emissions of the whole aviation industry over time until 2050.
The graph shows increasing emissions until 2023 to reach 2019 emissions, which are then kept artificially constant until 2035, and then global emissions begin to decrease. Why artificially? Because the increase in emissions from 2023 to 2035 is ‘offset’ by buying carbon credits for reforestation programs or for CO2 capture. In a single graph, ATAG contradicts its first assertion with regard to alignment with the IPCC scenarios, which call for a 10% annual reduction in our emissions today to have a better chance of staying below 1.5°C global warming in 2050. Thus, ATAG is deliberately distorting the IPCC’s message by making it a 2050 target to reduce global aviation emissions by 80%, the pace being « chosen » by ATAG and not by science. Thus, it is important to write that the ATAG scenarios are not aligned to maximize our chances of staying below 1.5°C but rather take us towards a global warming of 3°C or more (it was also pointed out by Antonio Guterres at Beijing in 2021: « current targets are far too lax. Targets set forth for shipping and aviation aren’t aligned with the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius set at the 2015 Paris Agreement. In fact, they are more consistent with warming way above 3 degrees »).
ATTAG’s Strategy : hatch chickens !
So let’s translate the ATAG emissions graph. It is based on emissions of about 800 MtCO2 per year from 2023 to 2035, then about 8.6 GtCO2 cumulative from 2035 to 2050 with a remaining 325 MtCO2 per year from 2050 onwards. This gives for the period 2023 – 2050 about 19 GtCO2 emitted by aviation. This represents more than 8.6% of the carbon budget that will remain for humanity at the end of 2022 to try to stay below 1.5°C. Thus, following ATAG’s plan, aviation would more than triple its climate impact over the next 30 years compared to other sectors. How can this be justified?
It should be remembered that Waypoint 2050 takes into account « only » CO2, whereas recent research calls for great caution regarding the real impact of non-CO2 effects. Current estimates of these non-CO2 effects, although highly uncertain, double the impact of aviation on global warming. The precautionary principle would have us redouble our efforts, but there is no trace of their effects in a plan that focuses exclusively on carbon.
It should also be noted that ATAG’s plan is based on an estimated air traffic growth of 3.1% per year, driven mainly by the emerging middle classes. This represents a doubling of traffic by 2045 compared to this year. These estimates are totally in line with those of Airbus, which expects the number of aircraft in operation to double by 2045. Is all this serious? If ATAG says so!
Technologies, SAF and other fun facts
But what happens in 2035? Are the planets aligning to meet the gargantuan needs of aviation? Almost. We explain!
ATAG presents three consolidated scenarios that they believe will enable them to achieve their objectives in 2050. Here they are, with the percentages representing the share of effort required:
Example for an intermediate scenario not taking into account economic measures:
To make their scenarios concrete, ATAG also calculated the quantities of SAF needed for each scenario. The projected quantities range from 330 million tons to 445 million tons per year in 2050. To give an order of magnitude, in 2019 annual world production reached 100,000 tons. Thus the ‘challenge’ represents a multiplication between 3,300 and 4,450 of the annual production of alternative fuels in 31 years. All of this without competition with food or induced deforestation, which are two of the criteria for SAF certification. A certification that has been able to adapt following the failures of the first generation of SAF.
A « challenge » you say? We’ll let you judge for yourself.
Offsetting as a last call ?
What if all this doesn’t happen as fast as needed ? Whether it is technology, SAF quantities or ATM improvements? Then we will « offset »! How? By capturing CO2! And if that doesn’t work yet? If the techniques are not mature yet? Well, by planting trees!
Let’s expect to see hundreds of thousands of trees growing under the colors of ATAG members, and never mind if botanists and other scientists warn about the risks and inefficiency of these reforestation programs.
So what can we do ?
« So we stop everything and take back the carriage and the candle! Is that what you want? » Err… no! There’s a world of difference between fuelling 3.1% growth in air traffic each year and going back to horse-drawn carriages! And guess what, some people are already drawing it within the sector and beyond! It is « just » a matter of doing our bit and not thinking that other sectors will make up for our lag. Solutions exist to be in line with 1.5°C, lets use them!
Any hope ?
In 2020, 700 students from french aeronautical schools published an opinion piece for our sector to take the right decisions. A visit to the government, to Airbus, SAFRAN and others and, two years later, what has changed? Mrs Elisabeth Borne, then Minister of Ecology and Transports, is now Prime Minister, but her promise to students to indicate the carbon content of all products (starting with airline tickets) has remained on the cards.
In 2021, the ISAE, supported by its researchers, signed a reference framework for aviation and climate which make an unvarnished assessment and propose ways of sticking to the IPCC scenarios, taking into account the growth lever, without betting on the uncertain future of technologies or tree plantations. The CAST tool is also available online and freely accessible to allow anyone to create their own scenario based on multiple parameters including technological gains, alternative fuels and traffic levels. Do not hesitate to use it, as it also helps to understand the orders of magnitude.
Since 2020, aeronautics employees have joined us in the ICARE collective and the Pensons l’Aéronautique pour Demain collective. After a forum in the autumn of 2020, articles and a few round tables, we published a report in August 2021 entitled « Fewer planes, more jobs » which goes against the tales of catastrophic job losses and thinks the Occitanie region happily deprived of aeronautical growth. The “Assises de l’Aviation” organised in the wake of this publication also show the abundance of solutions that are within our reach to bring to the climate goals the sector and the territories that are currently dependent on it through.
The aeronautical schools, such as ISAE or ENAC and many others, have understood that the issues at stake require a profound change in their curricula in order to meet the challenges that await the students who are and will be in the lecture halls. They have therefore initiated, often under the impetus of their students and a few well-informed employees, a change in their programs by including modules on living beings, on climate change, on the impact of aviation on the climate and on the levers available to us to reduce it as much as possible and as quickly as possible. ENAC even offers modules for professionals that we invite all our colleagues to follow.
The more many of us are aware of the facts and the issues at stake, the less likely it will be for companies and organizations such as ATAG to present plans such as Waypoint 2050 to the public and to elected representatives, which are not at all up to the task.
A quote from the High Council for the Climate in November 2019 sums up our state of mind: « However, by their very nature, technological disruptions are uncertain. It is therefore essential to take several paths towards a low-carbon economy, and to ensure that the objective of carbon neutrality is achieved even in the event of future innovations are less strong than expected. »
Again, the growth lever should not be a taboo, the stakes are too high. We can organise ourselves with limited traffic in a liveable world! Much less so in a dried-up planet!
So let’s work together to make international aviation truly in tune with life and the planet.
Translated with the support of DeepL