Viking boffins raid aviation industry greenwash


Viking raiders

The Journal of Sustainable Tourism recently published a paper by pair of Scandinavian academics, entitled, "It Does Not Harm the Environment! An Analysis of Industry Discourses on Tourism, Air Travel and the Environment". In a nutshell, they show that aviation industry spin-doctors lie through their teeth, using a limited set of deeply flawed, broadly irrational, and fundamentally dishonest arguments to misrepresent their contribution to climate change in order to keep people flying. Say what?

The authors ask why, with growing awareness of the problem of climate change, does consumer behaviour with regards to air travel not appear to be changing at all – despite the fact that 80% of the greenhouse gas emissions released through tourism-related transport in the EU come from air travel. They go on to analyse some of the aviation industry's discourses (chat) around air travel's environmental impact in an attempt to find an answer.

It turns out that the industry spin-doctors use just four basic arguments to answer critics:

  1. Air travel is energy-efficient. Globally, it accounts only for marginal emissions of CO2.
  2. Air travel is economically and socially too important to be restricted.
  3. Environmental impacts exist, but technology will solve the problem.
  4. Air travel is treated 'unfairly' in comparison to other means of transport.

All of these are all too familiar to us here at Plane Stupid; but do any of them stack up? The authors then take each of the four lines of argument and compare them, "to material and data available in scientific publications and similar sources of information, in order to understand whether the statements provided by the industry match with scientific insights."

Hmm, what could they have discovered next?

Firstly, industry PR makes misleading statements and produces meaningless figures through inappropriate comparisons about efficiency that "do not adequately represent air travel's environmental performance, efficiency and sustainability." Surely not?

But they've also been somewhat economical with the truth about their contribution to climate change; the percentages the industry routinely claim for this are over 15 years old, dating all the way back to 1992. In 2005, aviation's total contribution to anthropogenic radiative forcing (man-made warming) stood at somewhere around 5.1%. But the authors point out that this needs to be seen in light of the fact that only a miniscule 2% of the world's population actually participate in international air travel.

Furthermore at current growth rates aviation will account for 40% of global total emissions by 2050. Finally, they note that companies like Lufthansa actually mention emissions from volcanoes in their rhetoric – a logical non-sequitur that has been a favourite of climate change deniers from day one, and has been thoroughly debunked many, many times.

The economic and social importance of aviation is routinely over-stated in a surprisingly large number and variety of ways. Many of the standard economic arguments in support of air transport are equally applicable to other forms of transport such as rail, and claims made by industry-sponsored economic reports are rarely cross-checked, yet frequently represent deliberate misinterpretations of the data that produce wildly inaccurate figures.

The authors note, for example, that an Oxford Economic Forecasting report (which forms one of the central pillars of the case for the UK's present expansionist air transport policy) is regularly cited by industry sources as showing that restricting aviation growth in the UK could result in a 2.5% reduction in overall UK GDP by 2015 - pretty scary stuff if you are a policy maker. But in fact the losses used (£30 billion) to produce the 2.5% figure are projected to take place not in a single year as implied by this calculation, but over 17 years. Either the aviation industry analysts are too stupid to understand their own economic forecasts, or they are banking on the rest of us being too thick to. I wonder which...

Insistence on the reliance of the economies of developing nations on air transport for tourism and export masks the reality of who actually benefits from these relationships; in most cases it is foreign investors, largely from industrialized nations, who walk away with the lion's share of the profits from these ventures. What financial benefits do accrue to the host nation tend to be concentrated in the hands of the local power elite, widening the gap between rich and poor in these countries and in some cases exacerbating problems with already limited resources.

All the talk of cultural exchange and 'world peace' allegedly promoted by increasing air traffic is based on assumptions which ignore evidence that much of this type of crosscultural contact is superficial or even negative in character.

The notion that technological advances will solve the environmental problems associated with air transport is not supported by the evidence. Claimed efficiency gains to date are again based on unhelpful comparisons (e.g. between the least fuel efficient plane ever made and the most fuel efficient) which in no way reflect the performance of the world aircraft fleet, and never include the fact that the last generation of propellor planes were themselves equal in fuel efficiency to jets developed during the 80s. History demonstrates that annual efficiency gains decrease over time as the technology matures, making industry projections for the coming decades grossly unrealistic.

In any case, the science shows that fuel consumption per passenger km would have to be reduced by 80–90% to make the sector sustainable in the context of our overall emissions reductions targets – a level of efficiency gains not envisioned in even the most optimistic industry projections. Finally, they explore the possibility of alternative fuels representing a sustainable solution. They find that hydrogen is regularly mentioned in industry rhetoric, even though there is no serious industry engagement with developing this technology, and little idea of where the 'vast amounts of energy' needed for producing hydrogen fuel would come from. Meanwhile, evidence is mounting that biofuels have an equal or greater environmental footprint relative to fossil fuels, to say nothing of the consequences for human welfare of using land to grow fuel instead of food.

The aviation industry's constant complaint that it is unfairly singled out for criticism is identified as perversely at odds with the facts. The authors compare the array of tax exemptions enjoyed by aviation relative to other sectors and other modes of transport, from fuel tax to VAT, with the oft-cited protest that airlines must pay the full costs of their infrastructure themselves; they find that these infrastructure costs are far from directly comparable with tax, that privatization of rail in Europe has meant that the same is now true of many rail routes and networks, and that in any case the aviation industry also receives substantial direct subsidy from governments in the EU and the US, including direct payments to airlines and airport operators totaling many millions of Euros. They also note that the aviation industry always seeks financial comparison with rail, and never with transport by private car, which is heavily taxed in a variety of different ways – a level of taxation which the authors make clear is itself insufficient to represent the environmental costs of this mode of transport.

The paper concludes that aviation industry discourse uses scientific language to present highly equivocal statements drawn from deliberate misinterpretations of data as facts, and that this is probably playing an important role in maintaining public ignorance about the true environmental impacts of air travel. The authors also show that industry rhetoric that seeks to position aviation as a "victim" of government policies hampering its development is not supported by any of the available evidence, and in most cases the truth is the exact opposite.

They identify the EU's choice of emissions trading as the only proposed policy solution to growth in aviation emissions as deeply problematic because of uncertainties around the sector's relative radiative forcing, and regard it is as "curious" that it will not even be included in the scheme until 2011 at the earliest. I'll leave you with their closing statement, since they have put it so well:

"Aviation discourses support attitudes justifying non-action on the individual level. Should these discourses continue to prevail, it is likely that air travel will grow and become deeply enrooted in society. This might have substantial negative consequences for sustainable

That's exactly what we've been saying – only with shorter words. Big up Drs Stefan Gossling and Paul Peeters!

P.s. it turns out that the good doctors whom I believed to be a Swede and a Dane are in fact German and Dutch. So not Vikings at all then. Their next paper may be on the fallacy of the 'viking discourse'...