Offsetting is an outright scam. That it is accorded a prominent role in Jet Zero - indeed any role - is a scandal.
We discussed the latest concoctions in the aviation industry’s recipe book for climate inaction, as outlined in the British government’s Jet Zero plans: zero emissions flights and sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) in Part One of this article. Today we review Jet Zero’s other offerings: fuel efficiency and ‘offsetting and removal’.
Read Part 1: Jet Zero and the politics of the technofix
Finding them to be over-hyped, and often socially and environmentally toxic, we ask why this is, and we look at the politics of the aviation technofix, before presenting sustainable and socially equitable long-distance travel alternatives.
The last gasp of fuel efficiency
The UK Government's Jet Zero report predicts that efficiency improvements will account for the largest share - a quarter to a third - of aviation carbon savings by 2050. Alas, this forecast is based on wishful thinking, with no historical empirical evidence to support it. Efficiency savings over the last 50 years have increased at most by an average of one percent per annum (pa), and they stalled from 1995 to 2005.
Even the International Civil Aviation Organisation projects 1.37 percent pa as the most optimistic long-term projection of fuel efficiency. The 1.4 percent pa efficiency gain on which Jet Zero relies, Finlay Asher, a former aircraft engine designer at Rolls Royce, told us, is “wildly optimistic.”
Offsetting is an outright scam. That it is accorded a prominent role in Jet Zero - indeed any role - is a scandal.
There are “no large step-changes in efficiency around the corner and it takes 10-15 years to certify a significant new aircraft and engine design. So, anything we do see in 2035 - e.g. new designs entering service - will not be the predominant aircraft in service in 2050, due to the 20-30 year lifetime of aircraft.”
A deeper problem with efficiency improvements are their rebound effects. Improvements reduce costs which spur demand, leading to more miles flown. Historically, the global aviation industry has grown at approximately three percent pa, far exceeding the efficiency gains of about one percent. According to the Climate Change Committee (CCC), if demand is not constrained, Britain’s aviation industry will grow at an average rate of over two percent pa over the next few decades. Earth’s systems care little that less kerosene is required per passenger if more in total is being burnt due to air travel’s overall growth.
The agenda of capturing
Let us assume for a moment that our scepticism toward Jet Zero’s favoured technofixes is unfounded. Even then, its calculations require that, by 2050, 21 Mt CO2 must be removed annually if aviation is to meet the net zero target. The Sustainable Aviation group projects that at least 26 Mt CO2 will have to be “offset or removed” each year. The CCC, meanwhile, estimates that aviation will require two-fifths of Britain’s negative emissions reductions by 2050.
It takes a peculiarly entitled elitism to propose that aviation emissions—a luxury pollution 50 percent of which is occasioned by one percent of the world’s population—would be a worthy recipient of fully two-fifths of Britain’s investment in these speculative technologies. In addition to such ethical questions, empirical concerns abound regarding the storage capacity for CCS, and the yawning gap between the miniscule scale of currently monitored and verified carbon removal and the colossal scale required for the Jet Zero sums to add up. Current CCS projects are not fulfilling their promise.
While funding, especially from the polluting industries, must urgently be ploughed into CCS research and trials, we should recognise that its purpose, as too-often presented today, is a technofix geared to short-circuiting difficult politico-economic decisions and supporting fossil-fuel giants. As the MIT Technology Review observes, CCS risks becoming a dangerous distraction from the need to reduce emissions.
Offsets and other offences
The solutions discussed so far are over-hyped in the Jet Zero programme, with a blasé disregard for scarcities, realistic timescales, and other obstacles. But all are based on technologies that do or may one day function. The final one, offsetting, is an outright scam. That it is accorded a prominent role in Jet Zero - indeed any role - is a scandal.
Offsetting is the right to pollute in one location purchased by certificates declaring its reduction in another, relative to ‘business as usual.’ If a factory poisoning a Malaysian river reduces its pollution ahead of a regulatory deadline, that shouldn’t give a factory in Liverpool licence to add mercury to the Mersey, to give a hypothetical equivalent. That the child next door is completing her potty training shouldn’t give me permission to defecate on your doorstep each morning.
The offset hopes of Jet Zero and Sustainable Aviation are mostly pinned on trees. We can agree: trees should return. Half of them - three trillion - have been removed by humans; a better balance should be restored. Yet there are caveats. Trees are not interchangeable units. Old forest is a complex ecosystem with dense understories; it cannot be ‘replaced’ by plantation silviculture.
And people inhabit the places where aviation firms wish to site plantations. What of their fields, livestock, and lives? Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) would have to grab an area one or two times the size of India to achieve a 50 percent chance of staying below 2C. Offsetting through afforestation could threaten food security, if global agriculture is not radically reformed.
Offsets, in Sustainable Aviation’s definition, are processes that ensure a permanent reduction of emissions that cannot be reversed. Frankly, this is a con. Afforestation is a moment within the carbon cycle in which reversal is guaranteed—when the trees die and rot, or burn. This summer has seen the forestry offsets of blue-chip corporations go up in smoke. The ideology of offsetting ought to go the same way.
Passing through London Gatwick last year, we noticed that it markets itself as “carbon neutral.” The claim rests on a mix of greenwash and accountancy smoke-and-mirrors, but it draws from a broader techno-utopian Zeitgeist: planes can fly by magic, thanks to technologies that enable business as usual to continue even as we successfully mitigate climate change.
The Jet Zero plans are confected from the same froth. They are a wager on new technologies, many of which don’t yet exist, and may well be unscalable. They combine flimsy promises from the aviation industry, in its attempt to pre-empt government intervention, with empty bluster from government, seeking to assuage a climate-concerned electorate. Its function is a smokescreen, designed to linger until this government is out of office, leaving its successors - not to mention humans and other fauna and flora - to face the heat.
Snake oil and greased palms
Why is the government doing this, and, thus far, getting away with it? One factor is a compliant media, much of which acts as useful idiot to the aviation industry, cheerleaders of corporate press releases. A recent example is the discussion of supersonic travel by the BBC’s Evan Davis. The proposed SAF-fuelled supersonic flights of Boom Technology Inc. augurs an age of “guilt-free” aviation, gushed Davis - erasing any concerns regarding Boom planes’ far higher fuel consumption per passenger or indeed the litany of SAF-related obstacles discussed above.
As to the government’s motivations, we could begin with Grant Shapps, the transport secretary and the policymaker responsible for Jet Zero, who, thanks to dodgy donations and unscrupulous business activities, earned enough to join a select club of ultra-high-polluters: private jet owners.
His ministerial colleagues, meanwhile, have been suckling from the teats of oil companies, airports, petrostates, and climate denialist individuals and thinktanks. This is a government that has consistently served the oil industry and is resistant to climate action. Yet to win votes from climate-anxious voters, a green façade is essential. A trumpeting of technofixes, while heels are dragged on most other fronts, aims to square the circle.
In this approach, the Johnson government is no outlier. Jet Zero may be a charade, driven by considerations of profit, economic growth and aviation consumers - largely business executives and frequent fliers, and not those of people and planet, but it’s in keeping with the global script. Policies are built around speculative technologies as if they are facts in waiting. US climate ambassador John Kerry recently revealed that half of the reductions required to reach net zero by 2050, if his preferred pathway is followed, will “come from technologies we don’t yet have.”
The Paris Agreement, similarly, was built on technology fetishism, with its gamble on an untried technology, BECCS. Since then, BECCS has been substantially discredited and quietly dropped as the lynchpin of climate policy, only for new technofixes to spring up in its place. Techno-utopian fantasy continues to write the official lines. The result is complacency, a diversion of attention from the practical changes needed right now.
If the habitability of this planet were the driving concern, Jet Zero would emphasise 2025 and 2030 targets, not 2050. It would ban private jets, press the MoD to shut down military aviation, remove the aviation fuel tax exception, ban aviation advertising, cancel airport expansion plans, and take immediate measures to reduce passenger numbers.
It would prioritise consultations with the under-25s, environmentalists, and scientists. And it would take seriously the Absolute Zero report from the FIRES research group. If the British economy is to hit net zero by mid-century, the FIRES engineers have shown, the aviation industry “faces rapid contraction”, with “all aviation activity phased out within 30 years,” all British airports except Glasgow and Heathrow shut down by 2030, and Heathrow too by 2050 - and only then, if the technologies and sufficient renewable electricity come onstream, could some reopening begin. Drastic and urgent action, it recognises, is required if the aviation industry is to reach net zero in the required timeframe. We cannot negotiate with the planet, or hoodwink it with offsets.
Restricting aviation demand does not mean banning the annual bucket- and-spade holiday. In Britain 15 percent of the population take 70 percent of the flights, and in any given year 50 percent don’t fly at all. The average income of the 15 percent is £115,000 while the 50 percent are overwhelmingly working class.
Nationally and globally, it’s the rich who fly most. Introducing a frequent flyer levy, for example, would not penalise the once-a-year holiday in the sun. Instead, it is a fair way of taxing environmental damage and equitably restricting demand. Most business communications can be conducted online - indeed, Covid 19 has exposed business travel’s great unspoken truth: much of it has nothing to do with business.
Some form of rationing will be needed, but it must be linked to progressive reform on other fronts. For instance, Jonathan Neale proposes, those taking a long-haul flight should be constrained to stay abroad for at least a month, but with employers obliged by law to permit lengthy vacations to accommodate this. Likewise, if government forced employers to be flexible, slow-moving zero-emission ships could offer an alternative for some long-distance journeys.
The case for aviation contraction won’t be a vote winner unless linked to proposals that address popular concerns. If campaigners are to bring the aviation industry back down to earth, the vision must be of a habitable planet and of appealing travel alternatives.
To replace short-haul flights, trains, and electrified coaches - perhaps hooked to overhead power lines along motorways - should be subsidised, reliable, accessible and affordable for all - or even free.
Surveys consistently demonstrate that people prefer train journeys to flying. Where trains offer a viable alternative, such as between London and Paris, we see passenger demand for aviation collapsing. While possibly suffering from a similar strain of techno-utopianism to that challenged in these articles, dirigibles offer an additional low emissions alternative to aeroplanes. Governments should revive night trains. Cruising at a modest 125 mph, a train from London could, with stops, easily reach Barcelona in eight hours, Moscow in twenty.
All these initiatives would create new jobs, for which workers departing the aviation industry should, in a just transition, be given priority.
To prevent a Hothouse Earth and the bleakest dystopias of climate chaos and species extinction, the fossil fuel economy must be rapidly shut down from both ends: supply and demand. In its place we need an economy that operates safely within planetary boundaries while also providing "a good life for all”.
Our critique of Jet Zero is not opposing investment in new technologies such as synthetic fuel, CCS or DAC. But if these remain essentially technofixes, neon green fig leaves to conceal the continuation of an insupportable ‘business as usual’ and to boost profit margins in polluting industries, they’ll be worse than superfluous.
As it stands, the airlines, hand in glove with government, are using these “solutions” to carve out space for an expansion of their operations. The aviation industry cannot be given free rein to grow based on false promises. Instead, it must be scaled down, and allowed to re-grow only if the life cycle of aircraft can be designed to avoid GHG emissions entirely.
As the IPCC recently stated, “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented” change is required across all areas of society. Jet Zero is ignoring this advice, we must not.
Josh Moos teaches heterodox economics at Leeds Beckett University. He is also working on a PhD on aviation, climate change and alternatives to growth.
You can read Part 1 of this two-part investigation here: Jet Zero and the politics of the technofix.