Flying and protecting the environment – that doesn’t have to remain a contradiction in terms

Do we really have to accept the climate-damaging effect of air traffic??

Where is the problem?

10. December 2018, Berlin. The water level of the Spree is so low that the river flows backwards in places. Even though it seems to be as wet and cool as usual outside, the 2018 heatwave summer has left its mark. Agriculture reports more than 20% crop losses compared to the previous year. Until now, global climate change was only known from afar, such as smog alerts in Beijing or hurricane "Irma" in Florida. But a drought in Germany – how could that happen?

That we humans ourselves contribute to this is now clear.

Thomas: "Flying is the biggest shortcoming in my personal carbon footprint at I live in Berlin and according to the stereotype: in a shared flat with like-minded people regarding conscious consumption. We don’t eat meat, only ride bicycles and use public transport, often cook regional and seasonal food, and heat infrequently and selectively. However, none of us wants to do without long-distance travel; the individual discovery of the world is the greatest achievement of this generation."

Depending on the statistics and the way they are read, global traffic produces the largest or second largest. second largest negative climate effect. Air traffic is the fastest-growing sector, and by 2050 it is expected to be responsible for 22% of global warming. Not to mention the local noise and pollutant pollution at airports (example Frankfurt), which are demonstrably harmful to health. According to the German Air Transport Association (BDL), passenger volume is growing by more than 6% annually, with Europe leading the way. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) claims that the number of passengers worldwide will double by 2036, and the German Aerospace Center (DLR) is even talking about a threefold increase in air freight. The government helps: Did you know that kerosene is exempt from energy tax and international flights are exempt from value-added tax in Germany??

Offsetting" CO2 – The modern indulgence trade

Dreaming of environmentally friendly travel. The operators understand me, they already offer me all-round carefree packages: Even Ryanair now offers the voluntary option of "offsetting CO2 emissions": tick the box, add a few euros, and the flight is booked as "climate-neutral. What buses and trains have also been offering for some time. The option holds the promise that emissions would be offset by investments in climate-friendly measures such as biogas plants in Bangladesh. The catch: flying itself remains harmful to the climate and continues to increase because it is no longer considered reprehensible. The conscience is soothed – and nothing has improved.

The situation is similar with "emissions trading". Since 2005, particularly energy-intensive companies, such as power plants, have had to buy certificates at auction in the EU in order to be allowed to emit a certain amount of CO2. Since 2012, this has also affected all major airlines whose flights take off or land in the EU. The concept is very simple: The certificates become scarcer and more expensive every year and should therefore motivate to invest in low-emission alternatives. The goal, he said, is to "decarbonize" the EU, with CO2 emissions 40% lower than 1990 levels by 2030. In reality, however, the price per ton of carbon dioxide has fallen from €30 to €8 since 2005, the oversupply of certificates has led to their devaluation, and the motivating effect has even been reversed: energy consumption that is harmful to the climate or. -production has thus become even more favorable for companies since 2012. The responsible EU Commission was insightful and decided in 2015 to sharply reduce the certificates until 2021 in order to bring about a price increase again. In fact, the price per ton has developed strongly, but is currently still 10 € below the entry value of 2005. For the time being, emissions trading remains ineffective as an instrument of EU climate policy and purely an object of speculation. The airlines have it particularly easy: 85% of the CO2 certificates are given to them free of charge, because only flights within Europe are taken into account. So why rethink?

No shortage of ideas – two alternative technologies

Do we really have to accept the climate-damaging effect of air travel? Where are the technical innovations?? We would like to introduce you to the two most promising concepts here: Electric aircraft and synthetic kerosene.

E-mobility is currently a strong trend. However, the obstacle to innovation in air travel is particularly high: weight. Kerosene as an energy source is much lighter than today’s batteries; a conventional long-haul airliner could not even take off with the weight of an appropriately sized lithium-ion battery. On a small scale, however, electric flights have already succeeded (z.B. 300 km/h with four passengers – keyword: air cab).

The most concrete plans for scheduled flights here are, of all things, the British low-cost airline Easyjet. As early as 2019, all-electric 9-seaters are to regularly complete the Amsterdam-London route (357 km). Easyjet is cooperating with the Californian startup Wright Electric and plans to offer all short-haul flights electrically in the near future (although the timeframe is likely to be very vague). They are competing with Zunum Aero, which is sponsored by Airbus. John Holland-Kaye, chief executive of London’s Heathrow Airport, is betting on hybrid-electric airliners by 2030 and promises one year of free landings (equivalent to ca. 1.1 million. €) for the first supplier to succeed.

In addition to propulsion technology, there is, of course, a great deal that can be innovated in the area of fuel. The Dutch airline KLM has been mixing biokerosene with fuel on flights to Los Angeles since 2009, and regularly on flights to Sweden since May. As in the automotive industry, however, there is justifiable criticism of the environmentally harmful methods used to obtain fuel from renewable raw materials. Initiatives for the synthetic production of kerosene, on the other hand, are more exciting.

Since 2005, the "Bauhaus Luftfahrt" in Munich has been researching alternative aviation technology, u.a. Sponsored by Airbus, DLR and the Bavarian state of Bavaria. The sun-to-liquid process has been studied there since 2011: Kerosene is actually produced from water, carbon dioxide and solar energy. In 2019 we expect results from the international pilot project in Madrid. In this – admittedly rather medium-term – vision, it would even be possible to operate with the currently existing global aircraft fleet in a quasi-climate-neutral manner. Likewise in Munich, at the Technical University, a pilot plant has been producing kerosene from algae since 2016. For both synthetic processes, however, there is still a lack of concepts that are competitive in terms of price and suitable for mass production.

It would be beyond the scope of this article to go into all the technological alternatives. Many concepts still fail because of long distances and commercial passenger volumes. Less realistic for the mass market, but also highly innovative, are solar-powered electric airplanes. In 2016, a round-the-world flight with two pilots was successfully completed for the first time in the "Solar Impulse 2," powered only by solar panels on the wings. In the same year, the "HY4" took off from Stuttgart, a four-seater whose fuel cell runs on liquid hydrogen. Despite the much higher energy density compared to kerosene or batteries and the emission-free production of hydrogen, the necessary transport under high pressure and low temperature is still too dangerous and inconvenient.

Technical innovation alone will not provide a remedy. To ensure that the growth in air traffic does not lead to further increases in emissions, Bauhaus Luftfahrt proposes a mixed strategy: From a combination of emissions trading, more efficient or. electric drives and non-fossil fuels could succeed in the planned reduction of environmental damage caused by air traffic. Unfortunately, "classic fossil" air traffic is still far too profitable to motivate airlines to make the necessary investments. Global oil reserves are limited, but far from exhausted. But time is pressing: According to the latest findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we still have 12 years to limit global warming to a moderate level and prevent it from escalating. What can policymakers do today to make climate-friendly aviation economically attractive??

What politicians are (not) doing

The current coalition agreement sees the aviation industry as having a responsibility to reduce the industry’s climate-damaging emissions. But is this realistic without political incentives? In any case, the €8 ticket tax on EU flights, which has been in place since 2011, is not particularly effective in protecting the climate. According to BUND, airlines have a tax advantage of €39 per passenger compared to rail on the Hamburg-Munich route and back! How can this be? Airlines benefit from tax-free kerosene, no VAT on international flights, government aid, and subsidies for airport construction and operation. Taxation of kerosene has been possible under EU law since 2005 and has already been implemented in the Netherlands and Norway. A study by the Federal Environment Agency shows: The introduction of this tax is also feasible in Germany, would lead to around 400 million euros in revenue in the national budget for investments in the future, and would finally create fair competition between modes of transport. Theoretically. Because in practice, it fails because of the state’s ties to the aviation industry. The industry is already complaining about the fact that national flights are subject to value-added tax. From a democratic perspective, this is problematic: According to a survey by the VCD, 78% of Germans think it is wrong not to tax kerosene. Shouldn’t that be a clear signal to the federal government? One could almost come to the conclusion that our policy is steered more by the industry than by the citizens.

At the same time, the issue of climate protection is moving higher and higher on the agenda of major companies as well. The BDL’s current climate protection report shows that improving the fuel efficiency of aircraft is not enough to achieve the climate targets. The goal: by 2050, CO2 emissions are to have fallen to 50% compared to 2005 levels. And not only through offset projects, which cannot grow as fast as the increasing demand for air travel. In order to make climate-friendly aviation fuels marketable and available, the BDL calls for political promotion and support. And yet is unwilling to lower the pressure on politicians when it comes to kerosene taxation.

And now you come

Politics, lobbying, research worth millions – where do we go from here?? The rapid change to zero-emission flying can only succeed if all actors from civil society, industry and politics participate actively and with conviction. For that, we have summarized some concrete suggestions here:

What we citizens can do:

  • Change own vacation and travel behavior: Z.B. Replace short-haul flights with train travel, aim for longer layovers on long-haul flights, explore more regional destinations. Here are some more tips: The sustainable shopping basket
  • Attend events and demos: Here z.B. the calendar of events of the National Climate Initiative (NKI), z.B. a barcamp in Berlin on 30.+31. Jan. 2019. Another tip: The Verkehrsclub Deutschland e.V. (VCD) advocates environmentally friendly mobility and is looking for members.
  • Investing in climate-friendly investments: Switch to a sustainability bank like GLS Bank or Tomorrow. Buy indexes or funds that include only low-emission companies, more tips here. Note: From the private purchase of emission certificates is to be discouraged at present rather.

What German politics can do:

  • Introduce kerosene tax (as also Norway and the Netherlands), here beckon annually ca. 400 million. € – invest this directly in climate-friendly aviation technology, also more in think tanks such as Bauhaus Luftfahrt
  • subsidize ticket prices for rail travel, because train journeys should not be more expensive than short-haul flights (the government, on the other hand, subsidizes air travel with annual ca. 10 billion. €!)
  • Putting pressure on Brussels and the UN: kerosene tax Europe-wide resp. introduce internationally, no more free emission certificates for air transport industry, including air freight

What German business can do:

  • Introduce general travel policy (promote videoconferencing, discourage short-haul flights and promote train use) – Deutsche Telekom example: train travel under 4h has priority
  • Train employees and raise their awareness of sustainability and climate-friendly travel options
  • Airlines: Invest in climate-friendly technology – to protect profitable dream destinations in the long term, use this marketing advantage!

This article was written by Johanna Kuhner (political scientist) and Thomas Zimmermann (Agile Coach), enthusiastic travelers and friends of the environment. It first appeared here on Linkedin.

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