What are UK climate activists saying about the aviation sector?

posted on 5th October 2023 by William Hallowell
Plane takes off.

With the global aviation industry focusing increasingly on climate consciousness and looking at ways to fly more sustainably, companies are keen to show they’re doing their bit – from the airlines and airports to the manufacturers and major fuel companies.

But in spite of the international industry’s target to be net zero in carbon emissions by 2050, some say it needs to go much further. In the UK, climate groups believe the aviation sector, along with the government, aren’t doing enough in their commitment towards building a more sustainable future for aviation.

From taxation to more electrification, private jet bans to citizens’ assemblies, environmental activists in Britain have broad and differing views on reaching the industry’s goals. But the common ground can be found in different organisations’ shared vision to protect the planet from environmental harm.

It’s ‘just completely ridiculous’

Alethea Warrington, senior campaigner and spokesperson for the climate charity Possible, questions the hype around use of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), and argues that in some cases it isn’t sustainable at all.

She says it isn’t enough for the aviation sector to commit to using SAF as a viable alternative to kerosene as a single or major solution to going green.

“It really isn’t going to be close to enough. The concern for us is that although these alternative fuels are billed by the aviation industry and the government as sustainable aviation fuels, they’re actually not”, she said.

“They’ll be incredibly difficult to scale if the industry does try and scale them and it’s going to have all these knock-on impacts elsewhere.

“There simply is not this alternative source of hydro-carbons, of fuel, that the industry can just tap into.

“If they try and use biomass, that’s going to cause huge problems in terms of the amount they need because it could potentially lead to deforestation and have all the issues we’ve already seen around things like palm oil.

“If they try and use crops, which they absolutely should not, it could push up food prices. Fuel from a waste angle is [also] not going to be very sustainable at all.”

Alethea added: “So this idea that it’s going to be viable to replace a tiny proportion of current jet fuel used with alternative fuels is just completely ridiculous.”

She says the aviation industry needs to be more “realistic” about the amount of SAF that can offer improvements on the amount of carbon emissions it contributes to the environment.

Further, she is sceptical about the possibility of “genuine decarbonised flight” at the same level that the global sector operates at today with non-renewable fuels.

Possible, the climate charity Alethea represents, is currently campaigning to persuade the UK government to ban the use of private jets, in addition to introducing high taxes on kerosene fuel and levies on passengers deemed “frequent flyers”, who are incentivised to fly more through airlines’ reward schemes.

The climate pilot

Todd Smith, a pilot and member of Extinction Rebellion climate group, advocates instead for the establishment of citizens’ assemblies, which are a form of community decision-making put together by a cross-section of society.

He argues that this would be a far more productive method to deliver change and aid the industry in achieving its goals as opposed to the short-termism of politicians and stakeholders at major aviation companies.

The pilot, who used to fly for Thomas Cook before being medically grounded, said: “It was psychologically quite comfortable to accept what the industry lobbies were saying, that we could continue as ‘business as usual’ and that these so-called sustainable aviation fuels would mitigate emissions, and that there was nothing to worry about.

“So from a psychological perspective that suited me well [while I was still flying] because to confront the existential threat [of climate change] and to realise this does significantly impact the career I’ve spent £130,000 training to do, and seven years to do.

Todd says there are a number of climate activists seeking to make internal change within the sector, such as himself, but that many who do want to help the cause are “gagged” by clauses in their contracts preventing them from speaking out, or to the press.

It’s “deeply uncomfortable”, he says, to confront some of the realities around the impact that aviation has on the climate as someone within the industry, but that it’s important to take a “critical” look at that impact.

The pilot argues that the industry is too focused on carbon emissions, whilst not looking at non-CO2 emissions which are having an impact on the environment. SAF, he adds, is not as sustainable as the industry suggests.

“Workers in carbon-heavy industries pretty much don’t have a future because it’s got a final date that the sector needs to be wound-up [by].

“There always will be an aviation sector but we’re in this sticky situation where we need to navigate a way which is good for both the environment and economic factors – and at the same time how do we look to support the industry’s workers? …

“So when the pandemic happened I used it as an opportunity to try and speak up for workers in the industry and I became a spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion”.

He added: “I knew that on some level that would be career suicide to be associated with the group, but at the time this felt bigger than my career choice”.

As way to steer the sector towards being environmentally-friendly, Todd says citizens’ assemblies need to be formed as a way of navigating towards a sustainable future independent from government policy or intervention.

“If we rely on the common sense of people who are given the long-form information by key industry stakeholders, both for and against action, like a jury service we believe that when people are free from the short-term thinking of politicians and board members they can make common sense decisions.”

‘Green washing’ isn’t good enough

Claire James is a co-ordinator for Campaign Against Climate Change who says airport expansion must stopped completely in order to combat the environmental impact of flying.

She argues that “scaling things up” is not justified by the industry’s commitments to electric or hydrogen-fuelled flying.

Rather than delivering material change, Claire accuses the industry of “green washing” – the idea that companies are simply virtue-signalling their support for sustainable flying whilst continuing to fly with non-renewable fuels at the same rates.

“Technology improvements are good, but when that’s used to push back against any restrictions on growth [in sustainable flying]”, that’s not justified, she says.

“And using claims of sustainability for marketing purposes when either the entire thing is not as green as it should be, for example carbon offsetting, [is disingenuous].

“There are huge, huge, concerns about that with new research coming out showing that projects don’t deliver, or when one small project is very good, but that’s not reflective of the whole thing.”

Looking to the future

Quite how the aviation sector will progress in the short-term, and in the decades to come remains to be seen. Great strides are being made in the electrification of aircraft – but just how vast and how soon the possibility of electric flying will be from a commercial perspective is unknown.

Major fuel companies, such as air bp, are also looking at the roll-out of SAF. But, again, and as campaigners have pointed out, are they as sustainable as they are advertised, and can SAF be used on an international level for short-haul and long-haul commercial flights?

Certainly, looking away from aircraft in particular, the industry at an airport and airside level is increasingly looking towards electrification. This means replacing buses, towing tractors and other ground support equipment that burn non-renewables with electric, battery-powered vehicles.

Other climate activists have pointed out that its all “well and good” setting “arbitrary” targets for 20 or 30 years time, but more international, collective action is needed in the present in order to limit the impact that the industry has on the environment today.

Looking at the UK, the demands to put an out-right ban on the use of private jets, or introducing taxes on kerosene and frequent flyers seems very unlikely – perhaps even unrealistic. But the discussions these demands generate certainly highlights the broader conversation about the aviation sector.

One of the main criticisms climate groups make of the industry, and the government, is the lack of will to act now, given the short-termism of the political system, as pointed out by Todd Smith. From the perspective of politicians, however, it’s understandable why they are reluctant to pledge commitments so far down the road – or runway – when they could seem unrealistic, as some say of the 2050 net zero target.

On the other hand, the point could be made that not having to be held accountable for such long-term promises is an incentive to make them, in spite of what critics would say is “virtue-signalling” or “green washing”.

Image credit: Roo Reynolds/Flickr