Limit air travel to certainly reduce emissions? The order is moving beyond the circles of climate activists to win over a segment of the aviation sector, which, however, is struggling to break away from a model marked by decades of strong growth.
Covid-19 has reduced the number of air passengers by three in 2020, but companies and airports are counting on a recovery barely below the pre-crisis recovery to reach 10 billion air travelers in the world by the middle of the century , a increase from 4.5 in 2019.
The challenge for the sector will be to neutralize its climate impact by 2050, as it has committed to, while continuing to meet the demand generated by the rise of the middle class, particularly in Asia. To do this, it relies on sustainable fuels and other innovations (hydrogen aircraft, optimized air traffic control, etc.).
A mirror for the larks according to some. “Betting everything on green aircraft and technological innovations is irresponsible!” Greenpeace France summarized and called on those responsible to: “ensure the necessary regulation of air traffic”†
An exhortation taken by aviation industry professionals, gathered with activists and actors from the Toulouse region in the collective “Let’s think aviation for tomorrow”.
“Since the aviation sector must significantly reduce its level of carbon emissions by 2035 and that no technological means will allow to reduce the necessary proportions, we therefore conclude that it is necessary to reduce the level of global air traffic”they wrote in a report in August 2021.
In early March, the NGO Transport & Environment also called for limiting or reducing travel, especially business trips, by taxing the sector more and including non-EU air connections in Europeans’ emissions quota (ETS).
“Not reasonable” to ignore sobriety
Today, no country counts these long-distance emissions, agrees Olivier del Bucchia, president of the Aéro Décarbo association. This group of aeronautical engineers is campaigning for the creation of a global “carbon budget” that should not be exceeded for air transport, relative to the 2.56% of its contribution to CO2 emissions in 2018.
“The temperature in 2050 will not depend on what we emit in 2050, but on what we have emitted between now and 2050”he demonstrates.
Aéro Décarbo has prepared several scenarios with the NGO “The Shift Project”, depending on the speed of implementation of technological solutions to reduce emissions. But even the most optimistic people, who would massively resort to alternative fuels, would see all this air “carbon budget” exhausted by 2050, according to their calculations.
“It is not reasonable to simply ignore sobriety options”, sums up the president of Aéro Décarbo. A complicated argument to hear for an industry that has been accustomed to solid growth for decades, he admits.
“We know we won’t have access to (hydrogen aircraft) technology until 2035, but at the same time we need to grow to stay in business and be competitive”explains Martin Gauss to AFP, the CEO of the Latvian low-cost company airBaltic.
Defending his sector that “invests billions and billions to reach net zero emissions”he warns for a “very difficult debate” who would announce it as? “Politicians had to explain to their voters who can fly and who can’t”.
Paul Chiambaretto, associate professor of strategy and marketing at Montpellier Business School, notes that “mindset for two or three years” with some professionals.
“We have more and more airlines telling themselves that their goal is not necessarily to fly more passengers, but to make them fly better”targeting rows for which there is no alternative.
But what about traveler adoption, in addition to the foreseeable rise in ticket prices to fund the ‘green revolution’ in air travel? “The big question that arises and on which there is currently no opinion from France or Europe is the arbitration between consumer welfare and environmental issues”remarks Mr Chiambareto.