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We can’t afford to offset our aviation emissions

An article published in Nature Sustainability yesterday warns that if we keep doing what we’ve been doing, aviation’s contribution to climate pollution might almost quadruple by 2050 as demand for air travel rises. An unaffordable level of spending of up to a trillion dollars would be required to attempt to remove enough of that pollution from the atmosphere to achieve global climate targets.

Before the covidian epidemic stifled air travel in 2019, the global airline sector earned a mere $26.4 billion. Moreover, it is not certain that the rate of global warming would be slowed even if airlines can afford to have all of their emissions removed from the environment. Carbon offsets, in which you pay for environmental programmes like tree planting to offset your own climate emissions, have gained popularity but are very questionable.

Growing air travel demand might result in a near-tripling of aviation’s contribution to climate change emissions by the year 2050.

The aircraft industry’s fast expansion in the years leading up to the covid epidemic must be slowed down if pollution levels are to be reduced. Over 60% of those “business as usual” emissions could be avoided if air travel demand remained essentially unchanged through 2050, the research found. Boosting energy efficiency may cut emissions by an additional 27%. And more severe reductions will need for cleaner fuels to be developed.

The new analysis lays out a plan to reduce aviation’s carbon footprint to the point where it no longer releases more carbon dioxide pollution into the atmosphere than it removes from it. The International Air Transport Association has been working toward a net-zero emissions target since2050. This target was first established in 2021. The schedule is supported by science and is in accordance with the global climate targets set out in the Paris agreement.

Given that annual increase in air travel demand is hovering around 1 percent, even the most ambitious road to net zero involves some carbon removal. Indeed, the aviation industry still has to make up for other airline emissions than CO2 that contribute to global warming, such as the thin lines of clouds that develop in the wake of a jet, called contrails, which trap heat.

There are new initiatives to construct large CO2-sucking plants that can filter the greenhouse gas out of the air, but this technology is currently too costly and has not been demonstrated at scale to be widely used. Electric aircraft and hydrogen jets have the same problem: they won’t take off soon enough to produce the type of emission reductions that are urgently required.

That is to say, the pollution issue in aviation cannot be solved with a simple technological solution. It is well acknowledged that the aviation industry is one of the most challenging to clean up in terms of its climate impact. Even yet, reducing air travel is a simple step toward mitigating this complicated issue. The new data suggests that a significant impact may be achieved by reducing annual demand growth to 1% instead of the 4% predicted by the industry.

And the 1% of the people responsible for half of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions from commercial aircraft may have to shoulder the burden of doing so. Maybe they’ll be willing to risk $1 trillion on carbon removal to undo the damage status quo economics has already done. Although it would be a risky bet if the past performance of carbon offsets is any indicator of their long-term viability.