Aviation and the world are suffering the twin catastrophes of the climate crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. These two seemingly unrelated disasters actually arose from the same cause — mankind’s dominion over the planet and the human race’s belief that it could do whatever it wanted and Mother Nature wouldn’t mind.
But as the beginning of July 2021 approached, we saw Mother Nature fighting back. A so-called “heat dome” was parked over the Pacific Northwest in North America and temperatures in British Columbia soared to 48C when normally they would be around 20C. In Russia, huge storms battered Moscow with pouring rain and floods. Scientists warned these unusual weather shocks will continue. Mother Nature also found ways to kill more people with the Delta variant of COVID-19 that is far more transmissible than other variants.
Amid all of this, several aviation companies chose the week of 14 June to announce their latest efforts to “go green”. Rolls-Royce, Pratt & Whitney, GE Aviation, Safran Aircraft Engines, and Airbus all rolled out their latest plans for “sustainable” aviation. However well-intentioned these companies are when it comes to the environment, these efforts are too little and come too late to have any real effect on mitigating the crisis. The Earth can’t wait until 2050 for the industry to become carbon-neutral.
Just a day after GE Aviation and Safran announced their green plans came a report that the tipping point for irreversible global warming may have already been triggered, according to the scientist who led an expedition to the Arctic. “The disappearance of summer sea ice in the Arctic is one of the first landmines in this minefield, one of the tipping points that we set off first when we push warming too far,” said Dr Markus Rex, who led the world’s biggest mission to the North Pole involving 300 scientists from 20 countries. “And one can essentially ask if we haven’t already stepped on this mine and already set off the beginning of the explosion.”
And while the aviation industry argues that its plans to be carbon neutral by 2050 will help — and those plans are good as far as they go — another report came out in June that said no matter what the industry does, its efforts will have a negligible impact for the better. Published in Nature Communications, an international research team including experts from the University of Birmingham said that nonCO2 effects will continue to make a major contribution to aviation’s climate impact over the coming years. However, these effects are not included in the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s (ICAO) goal of climate-neutral growth and only partly addressed in Flightpath 2050 — the European Commission’s vision for aviation.
Although Flightpath 2050 emissions goals are likely to stabilise aviation’s climate impact and ICAO’s offsetting scheme CORSIA will surpass the climate target set to support the Paris Agreement’s goals, the researchers warn that an increasing aviation-induced global warming effect is likely despite the implementation of a range of mitigation options within the sector.
Aviation companies should be applauded for their recent efforts, but the world can’t wait until 2050 when most of the industry wants to be carbon-neutral. It needs to happen now. Industry will argue it can’t implement changes immediately and needs more time. But it ’s not as if the corporate world hasn’t known the climate crisis has been brewing for decades. Scientists and activists in the 1970s were warning about the dangers then, but they were derided as “tree huggers” and “hippies”. It is only now, when corporate interests are threatened that industry chooses to act.
Hollywood though, knew about the dangers back in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Two movies, both starring Charlton Heston, made the point. The film Soylent Green used a powerful opening montage to show mankind “progressing” from verdant farms and green fields to smog-choked, traffic-clogged cities before zooming in on the last tree left in New York City being protected by armed guards under a tent in what used to be Central Park.
More tellingly was the famous line in The Planet of the Apes read by the character Cornelius. It reads in part: “Beware the beast Man, for he is the Devil’s pawn…Let him not breed in great numbers, for he will make a desert of his home and yours.”
If the aerospace industry can put a man on the Moon in less than 10 years, it shouldn’t take nearly 30 years to go carbon-neutral. The planet can’t wait until 2050.