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Solutions to aviation’s climate change crisis explored

Monday 7 March 2016


“Myths” behind tech solutions to aviation’s climate change crisis explored


Climate-damaging emissions from aviation will continue to rise despite the best efforts of the airline industry to make air travel sustainable, a new study co-authored by a University of Otago researcher suggests.

Department of Tourism Professor James Higham is part of an international research team that has explored the ways in which new technologies have been ‘hyped’ by the aviation industry and the media as the key to sustainable air travel.

In a study published in the journal Transportation Research Part D, Professor Higham and his colleagues investigated two decades of media reporting around technological solutions to reduce aviation emissions and the subsequent level of success in practically applying these technologies.

The researchers argue that discussion around these technologies creates ‘myths’ of zero-emission flight, shielding the aviation industry from closer scrutiny of its emission targets and sustainability practices.

In the paper, the researchers noted that air travel has experienced substantial growth over the last 40 years and by 2050 energy use in aviation will have tripled, accounting for 19 per cent of all transport energy by that time, compared to 11 per cent in 2006.

“This is in sharp contrast to pledges by industry to reduce absolute emissions from aviation through technology,” they write.

Professor Higham says the team analysed how new aviation technologies including airframe, engine and alternative fuel breakthroughs have been presented by industry as key to sustainable flight.

One example relating to alternative fuels is solar flight. “While presented as a possible solution to high-emission air travel, our research highlights the reality that solar flight is in fact unfeasible, with the creators of the first solar plane to fly around the clock admitting that solar planes would ‘never replace fuel-powered commercial flights’,” he says.

Other technologies such as hydrogen and alternative biofuels had not lived up to the early hype either, he says.

“However, these myths still shape the way industry and government talk about the aviation emissions issue, and lead to the impression that a sustainable aviation future is just around the corner. In reality, this mind-set is staving off the urgent need to start making serious progress in climate policy for aviation.”

ends

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