Despite the breathing room granted airlines by the near record low oil prices in recent years, the International Aviation Transport Association estimates that most airlines are no more than six weeks away from bankruptcy.
As any retailer will tell you, the trick for staying in the black with narrow margins is to increase volumes; anything else puts you at risk of collapse. And the aviation industry is growing rapidly: it has doubled in size over the past 20 years, and is set to repeat this feat by 2035.
This is problematic for those who are concerned about climate change and looking to drive transformation in aviation. What’s more, while most nations have committed to reducing their emissions by 2050 as part of the Paris Agreement, the aviation industry falls outside this arrangement.
Joeri Rogelj, an expert on global carbon budgets, estimates that for the world to have a decent chance of keeping temperature increase below 1.5°C (beyond which we are likely to see severe climate disruption), we should emit no more than 205bnt of carbon dioxide.
Air travel is fuel hungry: if all aviation fuel were to be replaced with biofuels by 2050, aviation will have emitted about 12% of this total; using conventional oil fuels, it will consume more than a quarter.
Moreover, there is no technology on the immediate horizon that will replace those fuel-hungry jet engines.
A multi-year, industry-wide analysis of the available options showed that if major manufacturers like Boeing and Airbus invest heavily in research and retooling, the new aircraft rolling off the assembly line in 2040 could be 40% more fuel efficient than at present.
This is impressive, but given that most of the older planes will still be flying and that business requirements and demand will call for more planes than ever, the impact will slow the growth in emissions only marginally.
As an industry expert told me, “the last barrel of oil pumped from the ground will be going into the wing of an aeroplane, and everyone in the oil industry knows it”.
So where does the solution lie?
The obvious one — fly less — is a tough sell. Not only do the driving economics of aviation and the necessities of 21st century business mean growth, a growing global middle class will have a hard time resisting the attraction of that cheap Mauritius holiday.
A new term to join the burgeoning ranks of climate-change jargon is market-based measures, by which aviation hopes to reduce emissions. These measures are principally familiar candidates in the climate arena: carbon offsets and biofuels.
The recently signed agreement at the International Civil Aviation Authority’s (ICAO) 39th general assembly in Montreal was an attempt to ensure that these alternatives are codified into the industry’s growth. But they are not without their own problems.
A concern is that unmanaged growth in biofuel production might increase carbon emissions by driving a change in the use of land, and could feasibly have affect food prices and availability.
A WWF-commissioned study conducted by the Stockholm Environmental Institute estimated that limiting biofuel growth to sustainable levels and realistic growth rates means it could supply at most one eleventh of the aviation demand up to 2035.
Carbon offsets might feasibly address the rest of the demand, but these would require strong sustainability guidelines. In the past, carbon offsets have led to large perverse economic incentives. These included preventing the passing of laws requiring the flaring of landfill gas because it could otherwise generate revenue through the carbon market, land evictions and a range of financial and methodological sleight of hand undermining any real reductions in emissions.
These, then, are the hurdles that must still be addressed to make the historic Montreal ICAO agreement work properly.
We need all nations to sign up to the agreement, ensuring that it addresses the emissions of the whole sector (we’re looking at you, SA!).
The present lukewarm ambition must be ramped up, to align at the very least with the Paris Agreement, and ideally with scientifically supported levels for keeping climate change at no more than 1.5°C.
And the measures need to have strong sustainability criteria for the production of biofuels and for offsets embedded in the requirements, to ensure that the offsets are real and that there are no adverse effects on ecosystems and human wellbeing.
The aviation industry is no more intransigent than any sector of the economy: it is filling a niche that we require, and will respond to our collective desires if we are clear on what is needed. Such clarity on the part of all of us is the only thing that will address the threat of climate change.
Taking that action is something that, in the long run, our children will appreciate more than a trip to Mauritius.
• Reeler is land & climate project manager at WWF SA