The civil aviation industry, with its numerous airlines that transport passengers around the globe, has seen decades of significant growth and has therefore also become an important contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). While many institutions, companies and individuals are striving to become greener and reduce air travel, the fact remains that the ability to travel long distances in a reasonable amount of time will require air travel in the future. A rebound from the crushing COVID-19 crisis is predicted in the aviation industry.
The global framework that governs today’s international air travel, namely the Convention on International Civil Aviation, agreed on in Chicago on 7 December 1944 (the Chicago Convention), promotes this mode of travel, with the legitimate intention “to create and preserve friendship and understanding among the nations and peoples of the world”. This is, however, in stark contrast to the term that the Fridays for Future movement introduced: “Flygskam” or flight shame. The aviation industry is therefore looking at ways to make flying greener and more sustainable and has set some targets regarding the reduction of CO2 emissions. These targets are however somewhat less ambitious than the Paris Agreement, from which civil aviation is excluded.
Sustainable Aviation Fuels
One way of quickly and substantially reducing GHG from airplanes would be the increased use of so-called Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF), which include fuels produced from plant-based materials or through other methods. These fuels have the potential to reduce GHG significantly (some say 80% or more). Their increased use depends on a number of variables, with an enabling policy framework being a significant factor. If the right policies are adopted and efforts from the private sector and governments are combined, air travel could become much more sustainable much faster.
The only marginal use of SAF in recent years is mostly attributed to its high price, limited availability and a race to the bottom for ever-cheaper tickets. Policies should therefore address these issues, including the narrowing of the gap between cheap and dirty fuels and expensive but environmentally friendlier ones. The Chicago Convention recommends to Member States for jet fuel not to be taxed in order to promote air travel, as outlined above. This recommendation is widely followed to avoid giving national airlines a disadvantage on the global markets and to ensure global connections are secured from different airlines to national airports.
How to promote Sustainable Aviation Fuels?
Pushing for global policy change
An effort to change this practice therefore has to take place at the global level and could result in an agreement on a minimum tax on fossil aviation fuels. This is arguably a long shot and would require extensive negotiations, especially to take into account the concerns of developing economies. A global policy shift on this topic is however increasingly overdue and an agreement could contribute to closing the price gap between cheap fossil fuels and currently more expensive alternatives. In the meantime, taxing of fossil fuels by individual countries or regional blocks outside of a global agreement could set an example and increase pressure on others to follow suit.
Pioneering innovative policies
There are of course other ways to close the abovementioned price gap and incentivize the use of sustainable aviation fuels. Although there might be more innovative options, one way would be to subsidize the mass production of sustainable fuels and support research efforts to scale up their production. While there are pitfalls to be avoided (e.g. using edible food for fuel production), the increased availability of sustainable fuels should result in a cheaper price and lower the hurdle for its use. Revenues from a fossil jet fuel tax could for example be used to contribute to a long-term shift towards SAFs.
Policies that empower customers to play a role
Only very few airlines give customers the option to pay extra for the use of SAF instead of fossil fuels. It seems that the uncomfortable topic of GHG reduction is rather avoided than advertised. National, regional or global policy frameworks could therefore include rules that would give customers at least the option of purchasing SAF for their flight and thus create incentives to SAF producers to increase their production. As a motivation for customers to play their part, policy makers could provide some form of tax deduction that individuals or companies would be eligible for, when opting for the use of sustainable fuels.
These are just a few ideas on options that policy makers could take into account. If we look at the bigger picture, global issues demand global solutions. For a sector that is literally operating in the global sphere and connects countries, cultures and people, this could not be more true. It seems however, that the traditional defaults are hard to overcome when it comes to innovating towards a disruptive shift for more sustainability. Policies that allow the building of a sustainable business case are therefore an important instrument to incentivise and accelerate this innovation. The stimulus packages that address the economic impact of the current pandemic as well as the resurgence of solving global problems at the multilateral level should provide a suitable environment to create policies that are ready for (shaping) the future.
Jonathan Brünggel, ENV’20
Jonathan Brünggel has a degree in international law and recently completed an Executive Certificate Course in Environmental Governance at the Graduate Institute. He has been working in humanitarian aid and has had his fair share of flying around the globe. The views expressed are the author’s own / personal.