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Climate Mayday on the Aviation Industry

Keep your seatbelt fastened at all times during the reading of this article.

By Jacinta Hamley, participant of Sail to the COP, an organisation advocating for environmental regulations on the flying industry. On Wednesday, 2nd of October, they departed for their trip to Santiago de Chile.

At this stage, most agree that our planet is on track for nothing very promising if we continue business as usual. We are still in the decade that can make a vital difference, but we need to act now and act fast. The climate crisis is a complex issue, with far-reaching causes and sources of emissions from across our global society. One of the leading sectors of emission is the transportation of goods and people.

Transportation is responsible for 14% of global GHG emissions. Intersecting that statistic, tourism accounts for 8% of GHG emissions, through transport, goods and services. It is important to note that neither of these statistics integrate the non-CO2 consequences of these activities. With global tourism projected to continue increasing from 1.2 Bn arrivals in 2016 to 1.8 Bn by 2030, the future of travel will be pivotal in keeping with a sustainable future for our planet.

The Elephant In The Room

As a single industry, aviation contributes an estimated 2% of the total amount of human-induced CO2 emissions, and up to 5% to global warming when taking into account the height at which emissions occur and other Greenhouse gases. UK, Germany and Canada each contribute less than that figure. The aviation industry, known as one of the most polluting modes of transport and a prominent driver of climate disruption, is still exempted from fuel taxation and subsidised and heavily supported by central governments.

CO2 emissions aviation industry

(Credit: EDGAR – Emissions database for Global Atmospheric Research)

Meanwhile, emissions from international aviation doubled in 30 years at a rate twice as fast as the average rate from all of the economy. The integrity of our living planet and of those living on it are at stake in these discussions, yet the outcomes of debate often fail to reflect the dire straits we are in. While regulations are decided on and implemented at a painstakingly slow pace given the situation, the aviation industry stands like an elephant in a room, a room as fragile as a porcelain shop.

Decisionmakers need to discuss this industry’s privileges and propose solutions to jugulate its emissions. This year, the UNFCCC Climate Change Conference COP25 in Santiago is the place where these debates will take place.

How Big is This Elephant?

Picture a mammoth. Make it a little bigger. And not extinct. A mammoth with 4 legs:

1. Focusing only on CO2 emissions paints a very misleading picture. Addressing the full picture is essential to take effective and efficient action on the industry, as well as for stakeholders to be on the same page about the true impact of the industry versus its value. As we can see from the infographic, the CO2 emissions only tell half the story.

2. International market based on tax exemptions and subsidies. As a border-crossing industry with strategic benefits to powerful nations. The aviation industry also built its booming success on a history of tax exemptions, subsidies and public investment.

Aviation benefits from a deeply entangled economic web of state-sponsored competitive advantages. This contributes to creating an unfair playing field in the sector of mobility where alternatives struggle to compete.With the industry in charge of its own mitigation strategies through the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), it is no surprise that many stakeholders are resisting change despite the detrimental effect flying has on our living planet and society.

3. Projected growth – the aviation industry contributes 8% to the global economy and is valuable in terms of travel, connectivity, cultural sharing, tourism and more. According to the ICAO, global aviation emissions are expected to exceed those of 2005 by 70% by 2020, with further estimated growth of 300-700% by 2050. in this scenario, the emissions from aviation alone will exceed the Paris Agreement carbon budget to keep global warming below 1.5°C. Although technological progress has improved fuel efficiency by 70% over the years, overall traffic growth has outpaced emission reductions.

Atlanta Airport, the largest in the world

Welcome to Harstfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport. 260,000 daily passengers, 4,000 football fields, 950,000 flights in 2017. (Credit: Wikicommons)

4. A symptom of greater inequality – the environmental costs of aviation are disproportionately burdened on those who don’t have the privilege to afford air travel. About 6-18%* of the global population has taken a plane. The consequences, however, will be shared by everyone, with extra-costs to the most vulnerable portions of our global society. Environmental costs are (still) not included in the economic market despite great progress in the field of valuation of natural costs and services. This is normally where taxes would come into play to ensure that the price of a product/service includes all of the costs – including those external to the transaction or those carried by society. In the aviation industry’s case, the contrary happened. Go figure.

Now compare the flight traffic map with a map of the overall vulnerability from the projected impacts of climate disruption, adjusted for countries capable of coping. This comparison clearly depicts those that will face the greatest impacts are not even the ones flying or contributing at nearly the same magnitude to the crisis.

Read also: What are Climate Vulnerability and Readiness?

We cannot be so reckless and wittingly heat to our planet when we already know the impacts, the costs and the consequences. Despite the technical advances in reducing emissions per flight, the rapidly growing aviation sector shows no signs of slowing its contribution to climate change. Robust steps need to be taken to curb impacts.

Sail to the COP: Our Mission

In this context, Sail to the COP organisation is pushing for a more flight-conscious world. We are worried that the continuing, unconstrained growth of the aviation industry will propel the climate crisis into a deeper state of irreversible damage and jeopardize the future of both our living planet and those who call it home. Therefore, a group of 36 change-makers are sailing across the Atlantic to South America to Santiago de Chile.

jWe will travel 12,500 km, taking 7-8 weeks, to the UN Climate Conference in Chile (COP25) to draw attention to the rising emissions from the aviation industry and demand essential policy change that promotes fair and sustainable travel. Onboard, our sailing think tank will prepare a portfolio of solutions for sustainable travel. Our purpose for sailing can be categorised in 3 core points.

Fair regulation of aviation

As COP25 is the appropriate platform to call for the required policies and showcase promising initiatives, we will hold a think tank on board our ship to address some of the pressing questions in forwarding the future of the travel sector along a sustainable path. It is clear that fair regulation of the industry will need to pave the way.

Promotion of sustainable ways of travelling and for these to fairly compete with aviation

We will cooperate with existing initiatives and relevant organizations to strengthen our shared message and bring the issue to the international political agenda at COP25. Our media campaign is a call to action, focused on engaging people on the topic and facilitating the wider demand for change, to ensure the future of our planet.

Building an international network to fight for sustainable alternatives

We are sailing to represent all those that care about our future, the future of our planet, and demand action from those in power to protect the integrity of that future. By sailing to the COP25 we are calling for these action points and pushing our world leaders to act. Our climate action goes far beyond the act of sailing – it is everything it represents; the mobilisation and engagement of concerned citizens. We call for a fair and sustainable travel sector, which enables people to choose lower emission alternatives and embrace a different way of life that facilitates that. We see the need for both a system change and mentality shift. Our approach aims to address both ends of this spectrum, which is where our media campaign and onboard think tank come into play.

We’re setting sail with a determination to explore the pressing questions; what does a fair and sustainable future of travel look like, and what are the pathways to get there? These questions, alongside collaboration and input from our partners, are our starting point for mapping out the transition to a sustainable travel sector. We will incorporate the perspectives of various stakeholders, and aim to address the topic at a governance, industry and consumer level. We will take a horizontal and transparent approach, documenting our journey and process throughout and make our findings public after COP25.

System Change

Instead of being disheartened by the inequality of deregulated aviation industry, we propose that policy changes pave the way for a fairer and more representative sector which encompasses the environmental costs of its activities.

As citizens become more concerned over our shared future and that of the living planet, greater awareness is gained about the impacts your choices have on those external to your immediate reality – both present and future. To keep individual lifestyle choices within the boundaries of acceptable usage of the planet, we need to gain new ways to travel and interact with the world. A wise man once said “Alone, small acts have small impacts. Together, they create massive waves of change.”

This project and what it stands for is not bound to the deck of the ship – it is strengthened and buoyant because of all those that support it, that are determined to create a fair and sustainable future. We are sailing to demand the attention of policymakers – help us become a force that they listen to.

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