Airplanes are a massive source of carbon emissions and the industry has no real plan to reduce pollution, prof warns

Some 80 percent of humans have never flown in an airplane and yet, the University of Ottawa's Ryan Katz-Rosene calculates, the aviation industry accounts for about 4.6 percent of anthropogenic climate change

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      When Ryan Katz-Rosene boards an airplane for UBC’s 2019 “Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences,” it’s going to be the last time he flies for the foreseeable future.

      “I’m done with it,” the assistant professor and president of the Environmental Studies Association of Canada told the Straight. “I can’t say forever. But I am definitely going to take a break. I hope this is my last flight for at least a few years.”

      The aviation industry is perhaps the trickiest piece of the climate-change puzzle, Katz-Rosene said on the phone from the University of Ottawa. As someone who studies this problem, he no longer wants to contribute to it.

      “It’s like going out and chain-sawing down an acre of mature forest,” Katz-Rosene added. “That’s the carbon equivalency of my return flight from Ottawa to Vancouver. That would strike people as completely insane. Like, ‘Why would you do that?’ And yet we seem to justify having that same impact on the climate when we fly.”

      Katz-Rosene is scheduled to present on the aviation industry’s dirty secrets at Congress 2019 in Vancouver this Tuesday (June 4). He’ll explain the scale of the problem and assess stakeholders’ existing options, which are limited.

      For nearly every sector, climate change poses a significant challenge, Katz-Rosene said. But most industries have ideas for how they can reduce emissions, even if only very expensive ones. The commercial airline sector is different, he continued. Here, humans are really stumped.

      Cars are going electric and cities can run on energy drawn from solar, wind, and hydro power facilities. But you can’t fly a Boeing 747 at 900 kilometres an hour on biofuels or a Tesla battery. With today’s technology, only the combustion of fossil fuels can move so much weight so fast.

      And so the industry has come up with something called the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA). The problem?

      “Offsets are absolutely awful,” Katz-Rosene said. “The most-renowned climate scientist who has criticized offsets is Kevin Anderson, and here’s what he said: ‘Offsetting is worse than doing nothing. It is without scientific legitimacy, is dangerously misleading, and almost certainly contributes to a net increase in the absolute rate of global-emissions growth’.”

      An “offset” describes something that reduces or compensates for greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere. Book a flight online, for example, and check a box that increases the price by $10 in exchange for the airline planting a tree for you in Malawi.

      It’s a simple idea but there are shortcomings, Katz-Rosene said. The first: “Nobody knows if they actually work.”

      The second issue, he continued, is that when offsets do work, we need to use them to reduce existing emissions, not to justify the discharge of additional pollution.

      “If we have a way to finance a carbon-sequestration project, that’s fantastic,” Katz-Rosene said. “But if we use those projects as offsets, it’s like we’re on a treadmill.

      “There is no way we are going to be able to address climate change in aviation without tackling demand growth,” he emphasized.

      The way the aviation industry plans to use them, Katz-Rosene suggested a more honest definition of “carbon offset” might be something like, “a framework to enable people to continue to produce carbon dioxide and to absolve themselves of responsibility when they might not even work in the first place and, if they do work, are things that should be happening anyway”.

      Katz-Rosene said he’ll get more into the math and science of the whole mess at UBC this week. In the meantime, a sample calculation hints at how great a challenge airplanes pose for the environment. According to Katz-Rosene, a one-way flight from Ottawa to Toronto generates roughly 4,718 kilograms of carbon dioxide, which is about as much pollution as a car emits in an entire year.

      Couple that information with this piece of trivia from Flightradar24, a Swedish group that monitors air traffic: last Friday (May 31) there were more planes in the sky than at any previous point in human history. The number was 217,824 and, it’s safe to assume, many of those planes covered more ground than the distance between Ottawa and Toronto.

      Katz-Rosene admitted that the one empty seat he leaves on airplanes with his boycott probably won’t save the planet by itself. But said he sees a growing understanding of climate change, the extreme point of severity it has already reached, and the sacrifices that humans now have to make for failing to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions earlier.

      “People are saying they are no longer going to take a plane anymore for short-haul trips where there is an alternative like the train,” he said. “It’s a growing movement in academia, too. People are swearing off of it.”