Connect With Us

Conscious Perspectives

General Reading

Charting COP-26 -- Is that a pie in the sky?

Mark Sloss

November 1, 2021

Today at COP-26 we received a declaration entitled “INTERNATIONAL AVIATION CLIMATE AMBITION COALITION”. Commercial aviation is a non-trivial contributor to GhG emissions. The widely cited statistic is that, if the industry were a nation, total output would rank it 7th after Germany. From a climate policy point of view though, we are asking whether the focus is correct on the part of policymakers and signatory nations. The International Civil Aviation Association (ICAO) already set goals a decade ago of improving efficiency by 2% per year, which was not out of line with historical trends. Improvements in jet engine efficiency along with innovations in avionics and lighter airframes have led to steady increases in efficiency per passenger seat for decades. It makes absolute commercial sense because of the amount of the economics of air transportation consumed by fuel costs. Each generation of aircraft upgrades provides significant improvements. Fuel burn for new aircraft fell by nearly half from 1968 to 2014. We are questioning the focus because unlike other industries like power generation, there are no viable alternatives on the visible horizon. Coal plants can be decommissioned in favor of natural gas, or going all the way to wind, solar, hydro, etc. ICE cars and trucks can be replaced with EVs. There is no EV plane (yet). The industry is doing its part in terms of innovation and of course there is room to do more. The real burden is behavioral though, and yet that is nowhere to be found in the COP statement. There are commitments to alternative fuels and technologies, but nothing about curbing unnecessary air travel, making more efficient aircraft affordable for developing nations rather than selling them hand-me-down decades-old aircraft, or changing the business mix to favor flying larger and more efficient airframes over the explosion in use of small, less efficient, commuter aircraft for many routes. [chart from International Council on Clean Transportation, Fuel Efficiency Trends for New Commercial Jet Aircraft: 1960 to 2014, Anastasia Kharina, Daniel Rutherford, Ph.D.]