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Sustainable Aviation: How to Prevent Air Transport from Becoming the First Victim of Frugality?

06.13.22 | Blog | By:

Resource scarcity, frugality, consumerism downsizing, de-growth: these concepts and trends, originally property of hard-core ecologists, are becoming mainstream, found in the last IPCC report on adaptation, in IEA recommendations for citizens to deal with the consequences of the war in Ukraine, in strategies promulgated in leading nations to fight or adapt to climate change. And could get in the front seat of ecological planification, as more and more experts tell us the market is not apt to deal with this existential threat and that the world needs a climate “Marshall” plan, similar to the massive support we got in Europe after WWII to re-build our nations.

One of the main differences between 1945 and 2022 is in the direct participation of citizens, now planetary stakeholders, in decision-making. They were mostly absent then, as planning for the recovery was technology-driven, first and foremost to feed, house and give jobs to war-stunned Europeans. Fossil energy and the various organized elements of the body political were there to help. Today, consumerism is clearly on the block, but giving up the 20th century second half habits of hoarding and being surrounded by “plenty” will not happen without citizens’ acceptance, through the slow and rather inefficient democratic process, in our societies, of course, but possibly also in illiberal regimes always under the threat of mass movements when discontent passes the red line.

Enters the concept of carbon budget, as the private component of the fight or adaptation to climate change (in parallel with technical “green” progress, innovation and adoption of climate-friendly technologies, at public level, like announced by G7 members in late May about low-carbon electricity supply to be dominant by 2035). Carbon budget is about making choices at the individual level to reduce one’s own consumption, as resource scarcity will inevitably force us to, directly or indirectly, by the price signal. Less consumption or, more positively, better consumption, as frugality may not necessarily rhyme with de-growth and return to the 19th century.

Alas, eight billion humans imply only slightly less than eight billion decisions. The temptation is immense for political leaders to regulate top-down and decide for us, the People, after due consultation, genuine or fake, which priorities for downsizing (“bettersizing” is not invented yet). In recent articles and studies, note that air transport is always pushed to the front, along with red meat consumption: flight shame is not dead, consistently claiming air travel is the most carbon intensive transport mode, and growing, in the face of the record masses of hungry to fly that mob and overwhelm European airports this spring and this summer.

Bottom-up is always a legitimate complement to top-down, a way to balance top-down authoritarianism, enlightened or not. The difficulty lies in how to mobilize a majority of citizens in favor of sustainable air transport. Of course, many, certainly those who fly, would agree that air transport is good for business between regions and nations, for tourism, to get to know and understand other cultures, to fly emergency goods (sanitary masks or critical medicines), and the aviation industry is vocal in highlighting these good points, along with a firm commitment to reduce air travel carbon footprint, more efficient aircrafts and engines, shorter routes, Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF) or hydrogen.

But, if only 11% of humanity flies, like in 2018, and only 4% on international flights, the other 89% may support restrictions to air transport, if not its full ban. Even if we consider advanced economies, one should remember that half of the population does not fly at all, like in the UK before the pandemic, and only a small minority, the Frequent Flyers, flies on a regular basis. Still, people who fly in France are more numerous than those who voted ecologist at the recent Presidential election.

So, the challenge is to transform the frugality-induced small (insignificant?) gesture of flying less, or not flying at all, by flying better, re-positioning the moral obligation into a larger context of collective action for a better society, sustainable and resilient.

Out of the three dimensions of sustainable development, environmental, social, economic, the first one should legitimately be put forward, as low-carbon fuels sure reduce the impact of flying on the environment, with CO2 emissions reduced by at least two-third: if the last drop of crude oil ends up in a plane in a few decades from now, the biomass should also be eventually prioritized towards aviation, and there should be enough resource, as low-carbon fuels produced from sustainable electricity and residual CO2 will also likely play a role. But there will always be deniers of the legitimacy of low-carbon fuels, regardless of the quality of environmental certification systems and bodies, so, the social dimension should also be a solid argument in favor of air transport. Jobs in and around the aviation ecosystem, from the production of sustainable fuel and efficient equipment, calling for local and skilled industrial jobs, to airport direct and indirect services, that can amount to medium-size city populations around major airports like Paris Charles-de-Gaulle: around 30 million people are employed in and around aviation on a world-wide basis. And we should not forget activities that depend on air transport, like far away tourism destinations or fresh food sectors for export, not insignificant in the development of less advanced countries.

These facts are well known and documented, widely publicized by the aviation industry at large, of course suspect of a posture aiming at defending an old style of consumption, when everyone used to turn a blind eye to the fact that we over-use the resources of our planet. Still, polls do not show a massive rejection of air travel, quite the contrary. A recent report, published by the Montpellier Business School Chaire Pégase, showed the young generation (15-24), dubbed the Climate Generation by some media, was willing to pay a 14% premium to fly sustainably, when the average polled would only accept an 8% premium.

Are we then facing the typical oppression, by over-mediatization (they call that whistle-blowing), from a minority of vocal activists without real backing, and, then, isn’t it time for the end-users, the travelers, the tourists who fly, to publicly defend their willingness to fly? There may be a mode of expression to invent by the aviation sector to engage their “raison d’être”, the passengers, in a loudly vocal defense of air travel, loud enough to be heard by the politicians who, if not challenged by the People and so eager to please or appease the NGOs self-appointed vox populi, could well find air travel a cheap and easy target for bans and constraints, regardless of the consequences described above.

Philippe Marchand is a Bioenergy Steering Committee Member of the European Technology and Innovation Platform (ETIP).

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