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  • OPINION: Aviation's environmental challenges are on the ground as well as in the air

OPINION: Aviation's environmental challenges are on the ground as well as in the air

Our special report in this issue is a good reminder that while flying aircraft may be the most prominent factor in aviation’s environmental impact, emissions from jet engines are only part of the problem. Fortunately, as our report highlights, solid progress is being made on terra firma. Airports are achieving carbon neutrality. Manufacturing is taking seriously the challenge of reducing emissions of greenhouse gases and harmful chemicals to air, water and landfill.

That challenge is no small undertaking. Airports and factories are huge, complicated facilities. The easy savings have already been made, so progress demands a continued focus on emissions reduction and offsetting. As commercial pressure mounts to boost production rates and accommodate more flights, and if oil and energy costs remain low, emissions need to be a corporate priority and not an expendable “nice to have”.

Aviation in its broadest sense – in the air and on the ground – has three problems. One is that promised emissions savings from, say, a new generation of engines mean a net improvement only if a new aircraft replaces an old one. But even if or when the entire world fleet is renewed, per-flight savings will not be enough to offset the expected growth in traffic.

A second problem is that carbon offsetting is a big part of aviation’s plan. Offsetting involves paying somebody else to cut emissions (by buying their carbon credits), investing in schemes designed to reduce future emissions, or planting trees. All these approaches are rightly criticised because they allow actual, measurable, current emissions in exchange for the hope that some technology will become viable or a few saplings will actually survive for decades.

The third, perhaps most intractable, problem is highlighted by the cases of Dallas-Fort Worth airport, which recognised that it is part of a regional crisis of ground vehicle pollution, and London Heathrow, where local residents are in uproar over the noise and pollution that would come with a third runway.

Aviation industry bosses naturally think of these problems in commercial and regulatory terms. And, they assume that arguments over whether and how aviation is to expand are won on promises of jobs and economic growth at reasonable environmental cost. But the wider public, increasingly, has a very different definition of “reasonable”. In this age of rising anger against a business-as-usual establishment, it would be unwise to assume carbon neutrality – as nice as that may be – is the end of the debate.

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