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“Technology myths” are stalling aviation climate policy

29th February, 2016

A new academic study has identified that “myths” surrounding aviation technology developments, such as biofuels and solar power flights may have delayed action to address aviation emissions.

The study, published in the journal Transportation Research Part D: Transport and Environment, by academics including the University of Surrey’s Scott Cohen and Paul Peeters of the Dutch University of Applied Sciences, looked at media coverage of technical solutions put forward over the past 20 years. The research was based on the idea that many of the new aviation technologies covered in the media contribute towards the ‘myth’ of zero-carbon flights and ‘sustainable’ aviation, detracting from the perceived need for policy measures.

The research builds on other recent academic and Government studies which have identified that continued growth of the aviation industry is expected to continue to outstrip technological improvements, leading to the sector becoming a growing contributor to climate change (see here and here).The paper also highlights that the forecast growth in aviation emissions contradicts both the aviation industry’s pledge to reduce overall CO2 emissions on a net basis and media coverage talking up the future prospect of a ‘zero emission flight’.

The research evaluates the IATA CO2 emissions roadmap out to 2050 which considered the role of technology, alternative fuels and market-based measures (see below). Compared to the necessary pathway for aviation to contribute fairly to reducing emissions (defined in the research as an 80% cut in emissions below 2015 levels), the study argues that the industry’s target falls short. IATA’s roadmap is also criticised for its lack of accountability as the effectiveness of the various strategies to contribute to absolute emission reductions cannot be presently judged and evaluated. The industry’s envisioned goal of annual efficiency improvements of 1.5% is challenged.

Source: IATA CO2 roadmap

IATA, aviation industry 2050 CO2 roadmap. Source: IATA CO2 roadmap 2013

According to the research, the aviation industry has been able to portray its CO2 emissions roadmap in the context of the industry making progress towards sustainability goals, as an energy efficient transport mode and a marginal source of emissions, obscuring overall emissions growth. In this context, the research looked at media coverage of nine technologies proposed as potential solutions for aviation emissions: airframe (laminar flow, composite aircraft, and blended wing bodied aircraft), engine (solar flight and electric aircraft), and alternative fuels (Jatropha, animal fats, hydrogen and algae).

The analysis revealed that over time coverage of some technologies peaked and declined, particularly those related to new fuels. For example, it argues Jatropha and animal fat biofuels contributed to the ‘sustainable’ aviation myth but have largely been abandoned by the industry. In their place, new “technology myths” have emerged which, according to the study, overstate their potential such as composite aircraft.

Another technology receiving coverage and perpetuating the myth of a truly sustainable aviation industry just around the corner is solar powered flight. According to the research, “flying directly on solar energy, i.e. with solar cells on wings, with a significant payload and at a significant speed, is therefore physically impossible.”

Any improvements are of course welcomed and encouraged, but it remains a challenge for policy makers to ensure that decisions are based on a realistic idea of future technology improvements in the aviation sector. This has relevance for both the decision of a global market based measure set to be agreed this year and the decision on airport expansion in the South East.

The paper is available here.

Image credit: Jeff Kubina via Flickr