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  • Writer's pictureAndreas Hardeman

Net-Zero Aviation, But Not At All Cost

(Originally published on 4 October 2019)


Last week I attended an interesting lunchtime event organized by local NGOs in Geneva where high-level representatives to the UN outlined their hopes and expectations for this year’s round of climate talks. Participants at the event were bound by Chatham House Rules, so I shall of course refrain from attributing any of my observations to specific speakers.


Suffice it to say that the panelists represented a cross-section of key players in the global climate negotiations, including SIDS, LDCs and LLDCs. Cutting through the nebulous climate-speak and mind-numbing verbosity that comes so naturally to seasoned climate negotiators, it turned out to be an accurate preview of the Climate Action Summit in New York. The central message that eventually emerged was a strikingly familiar one: “We need more ambition, more urgency and more financial support”. And listen to our children, of course.


But one of the panelists, standing in for a local climate honcho, had apparently “not received the memo”, as the saying goes. While his co-panelists were tripping over each other to convey how much they agreed with one another, this soft-spoken gentleman began to articulate some home truths. Why is it, he asked, that delegates in the negotiations waste so much time parsing words, inventing new concepts, and creating new groups, while nothing of substance ever seems to be resolved or concluded? Could it be, he wondered, because many negotiators have built their careers on these negotiations? Also, he continued, why do we keep insisting that “more must be done”, when we haven’t yet been able to implement what has been agreed already? Clearly, the room was not prepared to deal with so much reality. The gentleman was thanked for his intervention but received no response. No surprises there.


Putting aside the question about the existence of climate careerists (the answer to which is obviously “yes”), the second point is probably more interesting. Why, indeed, is it that GHG reductions keep faltering while “climate ambition” is speeding ahead like a faulty Tesla stuck on auto-pilot? It would appear that our inquisitive panelist, like many others, still holds the mistaken belief that climate change is - much like for instance ozone layer depletion or plastic pollution - simply an environmental problem that negotiators are trying to “solve” (spoiler alert: it isn't).


The reality is that climate change has become - and perhaps always has been - a vehicle to change the fundamentals of global society. To paraphrase former UNFCCC Executive Secretary Figueres, for the first time in human history we are intentionally transforming our economic development model. This has now been repeatedly confirmed at the highest levels in the UN. Top UN climate envoy De Alba recently stated that “a drastic rethink of the global economic model is needed” adding that “this is not a process in which we can aim at a gradual increase of ambitions".


To add some perspective as to what this means, consider the original IEA estimate from 2014 that US$ 53 trillion in energy supply and efficiency investment would be required by 2035 to get the world onto a 2 °C emissions path. More recent estimates by IRENA indicate that cumulative investment in renewable energy needs to reach US$ 27 trillion in the 2016-2050 period to meet the objectives of the Paris Agreement. Give or take a few trillion, you get the picture: these ambitions will require a lot of money.


The obvious question then is how, exactly, this new economic model envisaged by the UN will look like, how it will impact aviation and, indeed, vice versa. It is entirely possible that governments will eventually include aviation in their “net-zero by 2050” targets, in the full knowledge that much of aviation’s growth in coming decades is expected to occur in emerging economies, notably countries like Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia and of course China and India. In addition, mitigation options in the aviation sector are notoriously – and often prohibitively - complex and expensive and carbon offsets are increasingly unloved, even inside the UN.


Therefore, as we have seen in other cases, when governments seek to impose “green solutions” on society, great care must be taken to ensure that this doesn’t happen at the expense of those who can least afford it.


 

About the author: Andreas Hardeman (The Hague, 1967) is an internationally experienced air transportation lawyer and an acclaimed aviation writer and commentator on current industry trends. Opinions in this blog are exclusively those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of his business associates or clients. He can be contacted directly at info@astraworx.com

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