As an air pilot concerned at aviation emissions, Waiheke-based Captain DP Douglass says he’s uncomfortably aware it’s his hand on the throttles.
OPINION: Being a pilot used to be cool. Nowadays, the romance is largely gone; the exotic scents of faraway lands have given way to a quotidian funk of recycled air and plastics (“Eau d’Airbus” we call it) and pilots rely on solid respectability for their fix of self esteem rather than any pretence of glamour.
Increasingly though, if asked what I do, any modest sense of professional pride is tinged with something else: a gnawing sense of being a little bit shameful, a bit…dirty even. There’s no escaping the fact that I work in a polluting industry and though I’m just one small cog, I feel uncomfortably aware that it’s my hand on the throttles.
I can’t shake off the feeling of guilt by association, a gnawing sense that I’m on the wrong side of history. I imagine my future grandchildren asking me what I did and on telling them I was a pilot being met with a look of embarrassed disgust.
After 20 years and 500,000 tonnes of CO2, I am anxious not to be defined by my carbon contributions and I am far from alone. There is a groundswell of pilots and cabin crew eager to move the industry forwards.
Aviation isn’t a lost cause: the airlines, whilst steeped in fossil fuels, haven’t engaged in the same kind of denial and misinformation exercise that shames big oil and, with some notable exceptions, it would be wrong to characterise pilots as retrograde petrolheads.
The old guard has largely moved on now and the new breed is increasingly “on message” when it comes to climate. The atmosphere is our workspace and there is affection there, even if the relationship is a bit toxic.
After 20 years and 500,000 tonnes of CO2, I am anxious not to be defined by my carbon contributions and I am far from alone. There is a groundswell of pilots and cabin crew eager to move the industry forwards. Some have quit altogether, unable to reconcile career with conscience. I’m not quite ready, or brave enough, to go that far but I am ready to reevaluate my relationship with flying and think and act more critically.
What do you think? Click here to comment.
In wider society there is frustration at the apparent lack of progress and this is feeding a blame culture, but finger-pointing needs to be done consciously, not caustically, if it is to have a positive effect.
When faced with the totality of a climate emergency we tend to identify an aspect of the crisis that doesn’t involve us personally and focus on that as being the root of the problem. For those not dependent on aviation, it makes a ready scapegoat; for those that are, we see it as just one small piece of a bigger global jigsaw.
There’s hypocrisy both ways but I think solutions will flow more readily in an atmosphere of collective engagement than one dominated by blame and enmity.
The slow progress is largely down to two factors: technical challenges and ineffective regulation. The first will take sustained investment, time and luck and the second requires a joined up approach between governments, regulators, airlines and manufacturers that has been in short supply so far.
For those not dependent on aviation, it makes a ready scapegoat; for those that are, we see it as just one small piece of a bigger global jigsaw. There’s hypocrisy both ways.
Whilst the technical challenges are real enough, have the difficulties they present been used as excuses for inaction and besides, who do we expect to fund all this investment when the payback is uncertain and distant?
These are important questions. Airlines are in the front line of public perception when it comes to climate responsibility but they are not well-placed financially, particularly at the moment. Right now, their only leverage for using lower carbon technologies is if the public shows itself to be willing to pay more for a greener ticket and the evidence so far suggests it isn’t.
They could also argue, not unreasonably, that they have been pushing a low carbon agenda for decades, being far more sensitive to the costs of fuel than other industries. When compared to other sectors, aviation is the apotheosis of fuel economy.
Of course, these efforts are not driven by a determination to do the right thing – it’s a purely financial imperative – but by a happy coincidence, fuel is the mortal enemy of the economist as well as the environmentalist and the airlines have stripped all the low-hanging branches bare.
The market (or lack of it) for a greener airline product is hindered by the scarcity of practical information available to consumers. A recent ranking exercise declared a low-cost operator in the UK to be the “Greenest Airline in the World” but the table was compiled using one metric alone – a factored version of fuel economy.
By granting the rights to claim titles such as “Greenest Airline”, this kind of ranking exercise facilitates greenwashing and is indicative of a broader level of immaturity in the way that we talk about air travel.
By this measure, it is inevitable that densely-packed aircraft operating near the limit of their range will produce the best-looking results. It’s a fuel economy “Goldilocks zone” but the position of this airline and others at the head of the table owes little to “greenness” in any meaningful sense – it’s like losing a coin down the back of the sofa and labelling it “philanthropy”.
By granting the rights to claim titles such as “Greenest Airline”, this kind of ranking exercise facilitates greenwashing and is indicative of a broader level of immaturity in the way that we talk about air travel. Some airlines are more sincere than others in their attempts to be responsible but the media is not yet discerning enough in sorting fact from greenwash.
My own international airline offers an interesting case study. A waste-to-jet fuel processing facility was announced in 2010 but has still not seen the light of day. It remains stalled in the planning phase, a victim of the low price of oil, shareholder risk-aversion, and a lack of government backing.
Promises of a greener future “…by 2014”, “…by 2016”, “…by 2019” have come and gone, echoed each time by a complicit media, when the underlying – and more instructive – lesson is to see how quickly this project, which has the potential to be truly groundbreaking, has been hobbled by external market forces.
The need to work across borders
It also illustrates the importance of consensus-building at every level. Proper transformational change will require the participation of more than just the airlines and more than support from individual governments. The global nature of aviation demands that nations work together under a coherent framework of taxes and subsidies until such time as the new technologies mature.
Countries wishing to curb air travel risk being undermined by their near-neighbours if they don’t act in concert, as the UK found when it introduced Air Passenger Duty, resulting in passengers opting to fly via Europe on their way to the United States.
In truth, the UK’s Air Passenger Duty levy was never intended to be a deterrent to flying, just a convenient way to tax foreigners, but New Zealand would do well to ensure that any taxes on aviation here are replicated across the Tasman, or else the same side-stepping effect could be seen.
It is often reported that the Chicago Convention of 1944 prohibits the taxation of aviation fuel but this is not the case. The main obstacle to the introduction of fuel taxes is the market distortion it creates.
Fuel is a transportable commodity and airlines regularly fly around with more than they need to avoid having to fill up where it’s expensive, in spite of the higher emissions this causes. Airlines and passengers have repeatedly demonstrated how far they will go to circumvent higher prices which is why only coordinated action to suppress demand will be effective.
Throughout the industry, businesses, governments and individuals are expressing an appetite for change whilst avoiding the responsibility of delivering it, because of the commercial disadvantage this usually entails. Airlines and manufacturers will point to incremental efficiency improvements of 2 percent a year and say that they are doing their bit.
Perhaps we should be smarter. Instead of asking, ‘Are you prepared to pay more to be green?’ we should be saying, ‘Are you prepared to pay a little bit more to be seen to be green?’ and following up with something material that enables virtue-signalling to one’s fellow passengers – a green background to the boarding pass or a free coffee onboard perhaps.
Governments and regulators are wary of imposing sanctions for fear of handicapping their domestic players in an international market. Finding common ground between these diverse interests has proved to be frustratingly difficult.
A rare example of a collaborative scheme that has made it off the ground is a carbon offsetting scheme named “CORSIA”. Leaving to one side the limitations of an offsetting scheme, it is telling that negotiations for CORSIA started in 2006. Two decades will have elapsed by the time the scheme becomes fully operational in 2027.
Despite – or perhaps because of – the painfully drawn out nature of international diplomacy, I see this as one key area for improvement, one in which the industry can deliver big gains, relatively quickly.
If national self-interests can be set aside, it should be possible to agree a worldwide framework of penalties and subsidies that shifts the economics progressively in favour of synthetic fuels (which, for now, represent the only readily available alternatives to kerosene) and to do so rapidly.
Personal responsibility, not flight shaming
The second area in which improvements can be made is the level of public engagement. I caution against “flight shame” when projected onto others, but a willing ownership of responsibility by individuals should be encouraged.
The extremely low participation rate in carbon offset schemes by passengers suggests a lack of connection between flying and its consequences – a dissonance that has been amplified by two decades of ultra low-cost air travel.
The same process of demystification that has put paid to the romance has turned flying into an everyday commodity in which the notion of paying anything over the lowest price possible has become unconscionable.
Perhaps we should be smarter. Instead of asking, “Are you prepared to pay more to be green?” we should be saying, “Are you prepared to pay a little bit more to be seen to be green?” and following up with something material that enables virtue-signalling to one’s fellow passengers – a green background to the boarding pass or a free coffee onboard perhaps.
We’re running out of time to get serious. The pressure, and the appetite, appear to be there. There’s a sense that change really is coming but I’m all too aware that I’ve felt like this before and been let down.
I couldn’t tell you what the future of flying will look like; which technology or technologies will emerge to be preeminent, and whether the aspiration of cheap sustainable air travel is even achievable. I hope so; international travel as a preserve of the rich would leave the world much poorer.
But I do know that we’re running out of time to get serious. The pressure, and the appetite, appear to be there. There’s a sense that change really is coming but I’m all too aware that I’ve felt like this before and been let down.
Is it different this time? I hope so – my relationship with my future grandchildren depends on it.