We cannot afford to offset our aviation emissions

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If business continues as usual, climate pollution from aviation could almost triple by 2050 as demand for air travel increases, according to a new study published yesterday in the journal Nature Sustainability. It would cost up to $1 trillion to try to remove enough of that pollution from the atmosphere to meet global climate goals — an unsustainable situation.

To put those huge costs into context, the global airline industry posted just $26.4 billion in profits in 2019 before the Covid pandemic put restrictions on travel. And even if airlines can pay to remove all their emissions from the atmosphere, that still isn’t a guarantee that climate change will be curbed. While carbon offsets – paying to neutralize your climate pollution through green projects like planting trees – are popular, they are wildly unreliable.

Climate pollution from aviation could nearly triple by 2050 as demand for air travel increases

A surefire way to reduce that pollution is to prevent the aviation industry from growing as fast as it did years before the covid pandemic. Keeping air travel demand growth nearly flat through 2050 could avoid more than 60 percent of those business-as-usual emissions, according to the new study. Another 27 percent of emissions could be prevented through improved energy efficiency. And deeper cuts require the development of less polluting fuels.

The authors of the new study mapped out ways in which aviation can reach net-zero carbon dioxide emissions, a point at which the industry is no longer pumping out more CO2 pollution than it can remove from the atmosphere. In 2021, the International Air Transport Association set a goal of being globally emission-free by 2050. It is a research-backed timeline consistent with the global climate goals of the Paris Agreement.

Certainly, even the most ambitious path to net zero — with air travel demand nearly leveling off at just 1 percent annual growth — involves some carbon removal. After all, the aviation sector still has to compensate for other aircraft emissions Outside of CO2 that contribute to global warming – for example, the thin cloud lines that form in the aftermath of an airplane, called contrails, trap heat.

There are new attempts to build large CO2-sucking plants that can filter the greenhouse gas from the air, but this technology is still prohibitively expensive and unproven at scale. Electric planes and hydrogen jets are in a similar conundrum; they will not get off the ground in time to make the kind of pollution reductions that are needed now.

In other words, there is no quick technological solution to the aviation pollution problem. In terms of climate, flying is considered one of the most difficult sectors to clean. But for such a complex problem, there is at least one simple solution: flying less. Just limiting demand to 1 percent growth per year instead of the 4 percent predicted by the industry makes a huge difference, the new research shows.

And that job could fall squarely on the “super emitters” — the 1 percent of the population identified as driving half of global CO2 emissions from commercial aviation. Perhaps they can cough up the $1 trillion it would cost to bet on carbon removal to erase the effects of business as usual. But if the poor track record we’ve seen so far with carbon offsets is any indication, it would be a big gamble.

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