Guy Leitch – Who wudda thought it? According to ICAO, the biggest crisis facing the airline industry today is not the sky-high price of fuel – or the problems of actually getting it to the airports when gas pipelines are being blown up and tankers get caught in storms.

AVIATION’S BIGGEST PROBLEM is also not the increasingly critical pilot shortage, or the lack of aircraft maintenance engineers. It’s also not the massive shortage of ground handling staff and check-in people which snarled up the airports.

None of the above.

If the wrangling behind the scenes of this year’s ICAO General Assembly is an indicator; the single largest crisis facing the aviation industry right now is carbon reduction. That’s right; saving the planet is the most urgent problem.

Aviation contributes less than 2% of the world’s total carbon emissions yet, like a gut-shot baboon, the industry is tearing itself apart by aggressively trying to convince the world that it is the champion in carbon emissions reduction.

The world’s airlines have embraced CORSIA, the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation. The big hairy goal is to have carbon neutral growth from 2020 by forcing aircraft operators to purchase carbon credits on the carbon market.

The Scheme is voluntary until 2027 but thereafter it becomes compulsory – and expensive. It is therefore not surprising that CORSIA and its awkward step child, the drive for Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) is treated with great suspicion by African airlines.

‘We will make the Vandals look like Mormons.’

The reasons are simple. Perhaps the least spoken about, but most insidious problem with Africa’s adoption of CORSIA is that it is perceived to be a ‘First World’ problem. Western airlines are responsible for more than half of the airline industry’s carbon emissions, not the tiny African aviation industry which accounts for a minuscule 1.8% of world airline activity. Africa’s response is, “Don’t make your problems mine.”

The other big reason African aviation does not care much for CORSIA is that very few African airlines operate sustainably – almost all the airlines lose money. So why would want to spend money they don’t have on making First World airlines more sustainable?

This dismissive attitude by African aviation is what makes the election of South Africa’s Director of Civil Aviation, Ms Poppy Khoza to the Presidency of the 41st ICAO General Assembly all the more ironic.

At the ICAO General Assembly the buzzwords were CORSIA and SAF. And no, SAF doesn’t refer to SA Flyer, but to Sustainable Aviation Fuel. The airline industry likes SAF because it provides a large reduction in greenhouse gas emissions with little change to current engine and fuel tank technology. SAF is a ‘drop in solution’ meaning that aircraft can use a 50% blend of SAF and JetA with no modification. Sounds great.

Imagine how much used cooking oil comes from the MacDonalds and KFC deep fryers around the world. What better way to use it then burn it in jet engines at 38,000 ft? And when you have used all the cooking oil, you can grow it as a crop, as demonstrated by Boeing’s ‘Project Solaris’ experiment in South Africa in 2014.

Boeing’s Project Solaris was a publicity stunt where it flew a 50% mix of SAF in a Mango Boeing 737. The source crop was a tobacco-type plant called Solaris. However, in the end, the crop largely failed, with what little that was cultivated being shipped to the West Coast of the USA for processing and then shipped back as SAF. The cost must have been astronomical.

It may have been an expensive PR stunt – but the optics are important. Airliners fill the sky over cities and leave contrails which flat earthers think will kill us all. Business jets come in for particularly venomous opprobrium.

The SAF plant was a big PR stunt.

More than ten years ago I wrote an irate monologue about how indignant I felt about the profligacy of John Travolta’s jets. He had called his Gulfstream 2 from Los Angeles to fetch him in the Azores. It seemed to me then to show complete disrespect for the environment. It was as offensive to me then as it is now when I see litter thrown out of taxis, but maybe I’m just middle class. Perhaps I should explain, but to do so I need to take you back to my youth and how, when we are young, we have broad minds and a narrow waist….

When I was young and impressionable, my broad mind was largely empty and therefore as receptive to fashionable ideals as Julius Malema is to conspicuous consumption. I had read a little book called ‘Small Is Beautiful’ by Fritz Schumacher, who despite his name, was an English economist. Fritz reckoned the modern industrial economy is unsustainable in that it would consume itself and choke under its own pollution. A typical statement of his, and one which particularly applies to air transport is: “Ever bigger machines, … exerting ever greater violence against the environment, do not represent progress: they are a denial of wisdom. Wisdom demands a new orientation of science and technology towards the organic, the gentle, the non-violent, the elegant and beautiful.”

This pop-science was as popular as the mini skirt, but like any fad, it became uncool. In the intervening forty years, no doubt thanks to their merits as eye candy, mini skirts have made one or two comebacks. However, the brain candy of warm fuzzy environmental concerns has taken longer to fall out of fashion, although thankfully some of the big scare stories have quietly faded away.

‘Man has spread like a cancer’

Contrails make the aviation industry and oversize target for the Greenies – and ICAO.

My bullshit detectors were long overloaded by the Greens claiming that global warming will melt the ice caps and make Bloemfontein a flower fountain in the middle of the ever-expanding Kalahari Desert. Yet, whatever happened to the hole in the ozone layer? Or El Nino to blame a hot day on?

The obvious target of blame are people like John Travolta who use airliners designed to efficiently move hundreds of people to carry just one of two people in splendid isolation. The hubris and waste is staggering. Over a typical year Travolta creates around 800 tons of carbon emissions. According to a study by the British government’s Carbon Trust, Travolta boasts a carbon ‘footprint’ nearly a million times that of the average African.

But is it fair to pick on movie stars for the amount of carbon they produce? Well not really, because the total amount of CO2 emissions they produce is miniscule. Indeed the total emissions from all bizjet usage is irrelevant. Their problem is that they are a high profile and juicy target for the greens.

The key difference between the hysteria of the environmentalists now and thirty years ago is that this time, instead of just moaning, they have a plan for us: CORSIA, – and we are all going to have to pay for it every time we buy an airline ticket.

As mentioned, CORSIA’s goal is to have a carbon neutral growth from 2020. Above this cap, operators will be required to purchase credits which would be used to pay compensation to those poor nations with rain forests to not cut down the trees.

Not unexpectedly, many consider these proposals absurd and unnecessary. To put the total business aviation impact on the environment into perspective, general aviation in the whole of the United Kingdom uses as much fuel in a year as is consumed by traffic in one day during a London rush hour.

And what about other pollutants? Apart from the obvious culprits like cars, there are claims that the massive growth of domestic livestock is damaging the atmosphere from their methane flatulence.

And SAF? Do we really need to be so concerned about our consumption of fossil fuel? After all, the free market has proven to be very effective in finding alternatives like fracking when supply shrinks and so price goes up.

The trouble is, SAF is not (yet) a viable alternative to fossil fuels for jet engines. If we relied on SAF completely it would consume the world’s agricultural output and we would be hungry. (Interestingly Henry Ford expected cars to run on vegetable matter fermented to produce ethyl alcohol). And, even if environmentally friendly fuels like hydrogen could ever overcome their bulkiness and risks to become a viable option, making hydrogen would still consume enough energy to destroy the atmosphere.

Perhaps there is no single answer. One of the best suggestions has been to offer a massive U$25 million prize to anyone who can find the best way of sequestrating carbon out of the earth’s atmosphere. In the meanwhile, it wouldn’t hurt aviation if the more ostentatious examples of conspicuous consumption could wind their necks in a bit. I fear that future generations are going to judge our generation most harshly. We will make the Vandals look like Mormons.

Man has spread like a cancer across the planet and we are burning down our home. Let’s all be more sensitive to the legacy we will leave behind.

For ICAO the big issue right now is the environment and carbon emissions.


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