Flight shaming, offsets and electric planes: How aviation is tackling climate change

Air industry knows it has a carbon footprint problem – so what is it doing about it?


Domestic and international aviation accounts for approximately two per cent of global CO2 emissions. (David Gray/Reuters)

Delegates from more than 200 countries will be travelling to Madrid this week to take part in COP25, the UN’s annual climate conference.

The perceived hypocrisy of so many people flying from all corners of the globe to try to tackle the climate crisis has led some to call for an air travel ban for participants.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), domestic and international aviation accounts for approximately two per cent of global CO2 emissions produced by people. It estimates international aviation alone is responsible for 1.3 per cent of global CO2 emissions.

But air travel is only growing. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) predicts 7.8 billion passengers will be flying by 2036, a near doubling of the four billion who flew in 2017.

According to Reuters, a Swedish-born anti-flying movement — perhaps inspired by teen climate activist Greta Thunberg — is creating a whole new vocabulary, from flygskam (which translates as “flight shame”) to tågskryt (“train brag”). The agency reports the movement is spreading to other parts of Europe.

What is the aviation industry doing?

In 2009, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the industry’s trade organization, set out to make the industry more fuel efficient and reduce CO2 emissions to half of 2005 levels by 2050.

The plan was built around:

    • The use of more fuel-efficient aircraft and sustainable low-carbon fuels.
    • More efficient aircraft operations — such as reducing on-board weight.
    • Technology and infrastructure improvements, including modernized air traffic management systems, to allow for more direct routes.

In 2016, ICAO airlines (about 290 worldwide) also agreed to the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA). CORSIA aims to offset 2.6 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions by 2035, by providing more than $50 billion Cdn for climate projects.

All participating countries will be required to begin offsetting any emission growth from 2019-20 levels starting in 2021. (As a signatory of CORSIA, Canada began monitoring and verifying emissions from international flights on Jan. 1, 2019.)

Do offsets really work?

As CBC News reported earlier this year, the general consensus is that carbon offset programs have improved. But there is still debate about whether they actually work.

The anti argument says they do nothing to actually reduce carbon emissions. The pro argument says if they weren’t tied to carbon offset projects, climate-friendly initiatives such as tree planting or wind and solar energy development would never happen.

The debate around carbon offset projects, such as wind farms, is seen as a controversial response to aviation’s contribution to climate change. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

Kathryn Ervine, an associate professor at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax who has researched carbon offsets, said they are simply a way for airlines and individual travellers to try to appease their guilt, and aren’t beneficial.

Her suggestion? “Go and find a worthwhile green initiative that you know is making an impact and make a financial contribution to it.”

Are individual airlines doing anything?

Many airlines encourage travellers to buy carbon offsets, fly direct (which uses less fuel) and even to pack less (lighter planes use less fuel).

KLM has gone a step further by encouraging potential customers to consider travelling by train instead. It points out some train travel between major European cities is faster than flying.

British Airways recently announced plans to offset its domestic travel beginning next year, after becoming the first airline to commit to net carbon zero flying by 2050. But an investigation by BBC’s Panorama revealed the airline was also using a cost-cutting measure called fuel tankering, in which planes load up with extra fuel to avoid refuelling costs at their destination.
British Airways became the first airline to commit to net carbon zero flying by 2050. (Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters)

Panorama reported that carrying that extra fuel meant the airline generated an extra 18,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide last year. BA said it would review the practice.

Qantas followed BA’s lead on lowering emissions with a pledge to also be a net zero emitter by 2050. Australia’s national carrier has already experimented with flying a plane from Los Angeles to Melbourne using mustard seed biofuel.

“So, we know the technology’s possible,” CEO Alan Joyce told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. He said the challenge is doing it commercially, at scale. “That’s why it’ll take some time to get there.”

Other airlines — including Air Canada — have committed to using more sustainable fuels.

An aviation carbon tax

But all of this isn’t enough for some European countries. Transportation is the only European sector currently increasing its emissions, so nine EU countries (the Netherlands, Germany, France, Sweden, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg, Denmark and Bulgaria) are calling for the creation of an aviation tax.

In a letter to the EU chief executive of climate, the countries’ finance ministers said an aviation tax where “the polluter pays a fairer price for the use of aviation transport” is necessary to combat climate change.

“Compared to most other means of transportation, aviation is not sufficiently priced,” the letter said. The European Commission has said it plans to respond by the end of December.

A ban on business class?

Jozsef Varadi, the head of Hungarian economy flyer Wizz Air, is calling for a ban on business class for flights under five hours.

It’s not an entirely new idea. The World Bank studied the environmental impact of flying first and business class versus economy in 2013, and found that the higher-paying passengers generated about three per cent more carbon emissions. Why?

First and business class seats on airplanes are bigger, fewer passengers sit in those sections and so the aircraft’s fuel is used to move fewer people.


There have been calls to reduce business and first class travel for environmental reasons. (Edgar Su/Reuters)

Indeed, according to this online carbon calculator, a round trip flight in economy class from Toronto’s Pearson International Airport to London Heathrow produces 4.9 tonnes of carbon emissions. The same trip in business class produces 9.5 tonnes.

What’s the future of flying?

In a word: electric.

Companies around the world are working on building all-electric aircraft. One of them is Vancouver-based Harbour Air.

The company’s founder and CEO is getting set to fly a DHC-2 de Havilland Beaver float plane that’s been retrofitted with a 750-horsepower electric motor for the first time Dec. 11. It should be about a 10-minute flight but will add to the growing body of research about electric aviation.

NASA is also playing a big part in that research. Its first all-electric aircraft — the X-57 Maxwell — arrived at the Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, Calif. in early October.

NASA has been involved in the research, development and testing of electric aviation technology for decades. Its goal is not to build the first all-electric commercial airliner — or even a prototype — but to help the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) establish standards for electric flight.

“Before electric aircraft start flying everywhere, [the] FAA needs to set certification standards for certain systems,” said Matt Kamlet, senior public affairs specialist for aeronautics. “And our goal with X-57 is to help set those standards.”

That has involved years of designing and redesigning the model, as well as experimenting with different energy sources.

“We needed electric motors which take the electric power and drive the propellers,” said Sean Clarke, principal investigator for the X-57. “We needed motor inverters or controllers that take the DC power that batteries provide and turn it into a rotating power for the motor to use. And then we also needed batteries.”

So the team modified some commercial battery cells — the 18650 cell — and repackaged them with the requirements for aircraft. The whole system weighs about nearly 400 kilograms and provides about 45 minutes of travel.


Technicians work on NASA’s first all-electric plane, the X-57 Maxwell. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

Clarke said NASA will be ground testing its electric plane in the next six to eight months and doing its first crewed flight test by the end of next year. The aircraft will be far quieter than current aircraft and in flight, it would be completely carbon-free.

If you think that 45 minutes of carbon-free flight isn’t of much use, Clarke pointed out that the technology will almost certainly benefit large aircraft as well.

“Hybrid aircraft — which could use a lot of the technologies from this vehicle and even batteries to some extent — could make a lot of sense at small scales up to ranges of two or three hundred miles [320 to 480 kilometres] pretty soon.”

So, should COP25 ban delegates from flying to Madrid?

Natalie Jones, a research associate at the Centre for Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge, said no.

Given the conference is in Spain, you’d have delegates from European countries who could take the train, maybe delegates from some North African countries who could sail across the Mediterranean and perhaps North American representation, if their delegates could afford a two-week trip by sea across the Atlantic. That would leave those most affected by climate change on the sidelines.

“You’re missing most of Asia, probably. You’re missing most of Africa. You’re missing most of the poorest countries, the small island states in the Pacific. How are they going to send people?”

What about video conferencing? Jones said for many less-developed countries, the technology can be unreliable. Plus, so many key conversations at conferences like COP happen in hallways, in smaller rooms, even the lunch line. So being confined to one video line would be of little use.

Arguably you’ll be locked out of kind of where the … actual power is,” she said. “And so if you’re not there, then your interests are going to get absolutely trampled on.” SOURCE

‘Walking the walk’ matters when it comes to climate activism

The public wants to see activists practicing what they preach.

Greta on strike in Katowice, Poland
Greta on strike in Katowice, Poland/ ABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

The secret to Greta Thunberg’s success lies in her ascetic lifestyle. According to new research, the fact that Thunberg eats no animal products and does not travel by airplane has played a major role in catapulting her to fame as a climate activist. When people see that she is living according to her own message of needing to curb greenhouse gas emissions, they take her more seriously.

This logical conclusion, reached in a study titled “Climate change communicators’ carbon footprints affect their audience’s policy support” and published earlier this year in the journal Climate Change, applies to any climate ‘messenger’. When scientists, journalists, companies, and individuals encourage others to simplify their lifestyles for the sake of the planet, the public looks to see how they themselves live, and then only takes them as seriously as the behavioral changes they model.

Furthermore, the study authors found that a messenger’s credibility is not the only thing that can be undermined by a lack of good personal examples; so is the public’s interest in policies for which the messenger advocates. In other words, as Forbes says, “The public is more likely to support systemic action if those advocating it have a low carbon footprint.”

One of the study authors, Elke Weber, explained in an interview with Princeton University:

“We have found that larger institutions, like the UN, play a moral coordinating role, similar to organizations at national, subnational, and corporate levels. But there is no question that mass movements by sympathetic agents, for example our sincere and scared children, focus our collective attention. The question is whether they can hold that attention when vested interests and other competing goals and objectives intervene.”

This takes us back to Greta Thunberg, who has captured global attention and respect for her astonishing and unwavering commitment to a low-carbon lifestyle, while inspiring countless others to take action. From Forbes:

“[This research] explains why Greta Thunberg has succeeded more than others at communicating the climate crisis and galvanizing social action. Thunberg has insisted on individual change — and modeled it — while advocating systemic change.”

SOURCE

Telling the Truth: The War on Climate Change is Over. We Lost

Neoliberal sparkle dust and Alice-in-Wonderland thinking is not going to leave humanity with a livable climate.

Image result for forest fires bc
Climate disruption is an ecological emergency. A report warns B.C. could face many more fires like the devastating Okanagan Mountain Park forest fire in 2003. ((Richard Lam/Canadian Press)

Prince Edward resident Rosalind Adams didn’t pull any punches: “If you ‘green’ Canadians are going to be assholes in the climate crisis, at least tell the truth.”

Adams writes, “According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report: Global Warming of 1.5 Degrees C., to prevent climate catastrophe, global CO2 emissions must fall to about 17.6 billion tonnes annually by 2030…The global CO2 emissions must fall to about 17.6 billion tonnes annually by 2030.”

Notice, the Report does not specify what an individual country’s emissions should be. But Canadian political parties and media, hopelessly captives of Big Oil, are suggesting  that by reducing Canadian emissions by 50% by 2030, Canada would fulfill its climate responsibility—something the IPCC Report does not suggest.  

Canadians having a carbon footprint of 10 tonnes or 7 tonnes per person by 2030 does not contribute to achieving a global average of 2.1 tonnes per person by 2030. Instead it contributes to a situation where many, many more people than us must have carbon footprints of less than 2.1 tonnes by 2030 to make up for our failure.”

In a Facebook posting, Adam writes, “So what the dominant Canadian story on the IPCC Special Report is basically saying is that it is a matter of internationally agreed upon climate science that Canada, or perhaps more importantly, North America, should maintain the privilege of having emissions levels multiple times higher than almost any other country in the world.” So much for climate justice.”

Neoliberal sparkle dust and Alice-in-Wonderland thinking is not going to leave humanity with a livable climate.

Image result for extinction rebellion tell the truth
Protests by Extinction Rebellion’s seemingly inexhaustible army of activists made plenty of headlines last week. Getty Images

Extinction Rebellion’s first demand is that Governments must tell the truth—climate disruption is an ecological emergency. Governments must tell the truth and work with other institutions to communicate the urgency for change.

Greta Thunberg says, “I support Extinction Rebellion. What they are doing is good. Civil disobedience is important to show this is an emergency. We need to do everything we can to put pressure on the people in power.” 

So what does climate science tell us?

Adam Sacks explains, “Because of the vast inertial mass of oceans’ ability to absorb temperature and carbon dioxide, there is roughly a 30-year time lag between greenhouse-gas emissions and their effects. The  result of atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide we see today, in the range of only 330 parts per million (ppm), are not the result of today’s concentrations of almost 390 ppm. In 2018, carbon dioxide levels reached 411 ppm at Hawaii’s Mauna Loa Atmospheric Baseline Observatory, the highest monthly average ever recorded. We don’t know with any accuracy what this means for future climate disruption.

The second out-of-control component is positive (amplifying) feedback loops. Feedback loops are self-sustaining, amplifying cycles. For example, global warming leads to melting glaciers which  eventually increase ocean saturation with carbon dioxide which leads to atmospheric carbon dioxide. We don’t know with accuracy when a feedback loop is triggered or how to reverse them.

The radical destabilization of life on earth, today’s floods, extreme weather swings, forest fires, typhoons and storm surges are symptoms , the result of 300 years of our relentlessly exploitative, extractive, and exponentially growing technoculture, against the background of ten millennia of hierarchical and colonial civilizations.

Another truth: You can’t bargain with the forces of nature.

To believe that our political parties will meet the level of emissions reductions that the IPCC claim are necessary, demands a level of faith way beyond belief in talking snakes and virgin birth. Better to give up dangerous magical thinking. That’s how we got here. Better to  accept that the war against the environment is over. We lost.

So what are we left with? Protecting as best we can our children’s and grandchildren’s future.

 

We can’t keep eating as we are – why isn’t the IPCC shouting this from the rooftops?

It’s a tragic missed opportunity. The new report on land by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shies away from the big issues and fails to properly represent the science. As a result, it gives us few clues about how we might survive the century. Has it been nobbled? Was the fear of taking on the farming industry – alongside the oil and coal companies whose paid shills have attacked it so fiercely – too much to bear? At the moment, I have no idea. But what the panel has produced is pathetic.

The problem is that it concentrates on just one of the two ways of counting the carbon costs of farming. The first way – the IPCC’s approach – could be described as farming’s current account. How much greenhouse gas does driving tractors, spreading fertiliser and raising livestock produce every year? According to the panel’s report, the answer is around 23% of the planet-heating gases we currently produce. But this fails miserably to capture the overall impact of food production.

The second accounting method is more important. This could be described as the capital account: how does farming compare to the natural ecosystems that would otherwise have occupied the land? A paper published in Nature last year, but not mentioned by the IPCC, sought to count this cost. Please read these figures carefully. They could change your life.

The official carbon footprint of people in the UK is 5.4 tonnes of carbon dioxide per person per year. But in addition to this, the Nature paper estimates that the total greenhouse gas cost – in terms of lost opportunities for storing carbon that the land would offer were it not being farmed – of an average northern European diet is 9 tonnes a year. In other words, if we counted the “carbon opportunity costs” of our diet, our total footprint would almost triple, to 14.4 tonnes.

Why is this figure so high? Because we eat so much meat and dairy. The Nature paper estimates that the carbon cost of chicken is six times higher than soya, while milk is 15 times higher and beef 73 times. One kilo of beef protein has a carbon opportunity cost of 1,250kg: that, incredibly, is roughly equal to driving a new car for a year, or to one passenger flying from London to New York and back.

These are global average figures, raised by beef production in places like the Amazon basin. But even in the UK, the costs are astonishing. A paper in the journal Food Policy estimates that a kilo of beef protein reared on a British hill farm whose soils are rich in carbon has a cost of 643kg, while a kilo of lamb protein costs 749kg. Research published in April by the Harvard academics Helen Harwatt and Matthew Hayek, also missed by the IPCC, shows that, alongside millions of hectares of pasture land, an astonishing 55% of UK cropping land (land that is ploughed and seeded) is used to grow feed for livestock, rather than food for humans. If our grazing land was allowed to revert to natural ecosystems, and the land currently used to grow feed for livestock was used for grains, beans, fruit, nuts and vegetables for humans, this switch would allow the UK to absorb an astonishing quantity of carbon. This would be equivalent, altogether, the paper estimates, to absorbing nine years of our total current emissions. And farming in this country could then feed everyone, without the need for imports.

A plant-based diet would make the difference between the UK’s current failure to meet its international commitments, and success.

People tend to make two massive mistakes while trying to minimise the environmental impact of the food they eat. First, they focus on food miles and forget about the other impacts. For some foods, especially those that travel by plane, the carbon costs of transport are very high. But for most bulk commodities – grain, beans, meat and dairy – the greenhouse gases produced in transporting them are a small fraction of the overall impact. A kilo of soya shipped halfway round the world inflicts much less atmospheric harm than a kilo of chicken or pork reared on the farm down the lane.

The second mistake is to imagine that extensive farming is better for the planet than intensive farming. The current model of intensive farming tends to cause massive environmental damage: pollution, soil erosion and the elimination of wildlife. But extensive farming is worse: by definition, it requires more land to produce the same amount of food. This is land that could otherwise be devoted to ecosystems and wildlife. MORE

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New energy efficient buildings aren’t enough, experts say — we have to retrofit the old ones, too

Canada Green Building Council says building sector has tremendous opportunity to reduce its carbon footprint


Vancouver’s The Exchange hotel was formerly the Vancouver Stock Exchange. It’s now waiting on its LEED plantinum certification. (The Exchange)

The Canada Green Building Conference is taking place in Vancouver this week, and a major portion of the program will be pushing the need to retrofit older buildings to reduce their carbon footprint.

Thomas Mueller, president and CEO of the Canada Green Building Council, says buildings contribute about 30 per cent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions — mostly because of their heating, lighting, and cooling systems.

Cities like Vancouver have taken the lead in constructing low-emission buildings. But Mueller says new buildings alone won’t be enough for Canada to reach its targets to reduce greenhouse gases.

“We can’t build our way out of it,” Mueller said in a phone interview ahead of the conference.

Green development advocates like Mueller say the building sector may be one of the biggest contributors of greenhouse gas emissions in the country, but it also has “tremendous opportunity” to affect change.

“It’s the only sector in our economy where we actually have a financial benefit by doing the right thing,” he said.

Retrofitting options

There are about 250,000 large buildings in Canada, Mueller says.

To reduce their carbon emissions by 30 per cent by 2030, up to 60,000 of the existing buildings over 25,000 square feet would need to become 20 to 40 per cent more efficient.

Older buildings can be made more efficient through improvements like installing double-glazed windows, more efficient furnaces and LED lights. MORE

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Canadian homes and businesses could have much smaller carbon footprint by 2050, says joint IEA-NEB report

EXCLUSIVE: Doug Ford’s government slashing programs designed to save energy in buildings

Image result for national observer: EXCLUSIVE: Doug Ford's government slashing programs designed to save energy in buildings
Doug Ford greets people outside Queen’s Park in Toronto on June 29, 2018, following his swearing in ceremony. Photo by Alex Tétreault

The Ontario government is slashing a series of programs that were designed to help save energy in buildings. It’s all part of a plan that the province claims would help “businesses improve their bottom line,” says a leaked provincial document.

The cuts, which sources told National Observer were expected to be confirmed by Energy Minister Greg Rickford at a news conference at Queen’s Park in Toronto on Thursday, are the latest in a series of moves taken by Premier Doug Ford’s government to undo climate change action in Canada’s most populous province.

Details of the plan were initially posted on a government website on Wednesday, before promptly being removed, according to sources who saw the written version of the announcement.

The changes would affect the Save ON Energy program, which was designed and launched in 2010 in an effort to help Ontario residents save energy and money, and reduce the province’s carbon footprint. Its programs and incentives are offered by Ontario utility companies like Hydro One and Toronto Hydro. The programs themselves are powered by the Government of Ontario and the Independent Electricity System Operator, a Crown corporation that oversees and manages the province’s electricity operations.

Industry sources confirmed that most, if not all, local energy incentive programs are expected to be cut, which will in turn cause job losses in Ontario’s energy sector. MORE

A Carbon Footprint Game That You Can Play, Too!

What happens when 27 high schools across Norway participate in a climate emissions challenge?

Over 6000 participants together saved 273,471 kg CO2e in just 3 weeks. And that’s equivalent to flying 27 times around the earth. In fact, if all Norwegians copied the top 20 classes in the challenge, the country would save 40% of its total annual carbon emissions. Imagine what a comparable effect would be if the world accepted a carbon footprint challenge …

The students logged their everyday activities using the fun Ducky web-app from a local startup. The algorithm calculates the effect of authentic user behavior in real time. That means each action the students took was based on simple things they could do to reduce their carbon footprint, like walking instead of driving or eating less meat. In total, they logged a staggering 312,175 actions, which showed how, by tracking their individual climate footprints over time, they could visualize and reduce their carbon footprints. That meant that each student reached important climate goals.

The Ducky Climate Challenge Game is based on established climate and environmental research data. The calculator simplifies data so it becomes understandable for everyone. It has the potential to show how all global emissions can be allocated to individual consumption of products and services, and how we, as individuals, have the power to ensure that we reach critical climate goals. MORE