Opinion - October 15, 2020

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Has aviation become a scapegoat for climate change?

Airplane wing at sunset

Written by Bertrand Piccard 3 min read

People are finally realizing that there is an urgent need to protect the environment and beginning to rise up against the excesses of a system that generates pollution and inequality—and not a moment too soon. However, to garner as much support as possible, activists need to focus on the crux of the matter and steer clear of anecdotes and scapegoats like Christmas trees and air travel, as such references could make a mockery of the very cause they seek to champion.

The main sources of CO2 emissions are combustion engines, poorly insulated buildings and energy-inefficient heating and air-conditioning systems. However, just because we may feel powerless to resolve these issues does not mean we should turn against secondary targets.

In the aviation industry, emissions per passenger have fallen by 80% over the past 70 years, accounting for a mere 2-3% of global emissions in 2019—below those of the digital sector, though video streaming never seems to be in the dock. Yet aviation is being held hostage by an ideology that advocates economic degrowth as the only solution to environmental issues and engages in borderline fanatical flight shaming to ease people’s consciences and make them forget that there are other sources of pollution.

This irrational disparagement detracts from the socio-economic impact of aviation activities, which supports over 1.1 million direct and indirect jobs in France and 4.3% of the country’s GDP. The aviation industry is therefore a major success that guarantees our self‑sufficiency in terms of transportation.

Most importantly, flight shaming eclipses the most important thing: if any industry can rise to the challenge of transforming itself, it is the aviation industry. It is in its nature to evolve. The people that form the backbone of this industry—engineers, researchers, production workers and technicians—follow in the footsteps of French pioneers such as Blériot, Saint-Exupéry, Mermoz, Dassault, Potez, Latécoère, to name but a few. 

Aware of the environmental challenges, manufacturers have therefore set out to innovate once again to fast-track the creation of a zero-emission plane (using batteries, hydrogen, third‑generation biofuels or synthetic kerosene). Private electric planes are already operated by flying clubs, but it looks like it will be another decade before similar commercial aircraft are rolled out. In the meantime, airlines must take responsibility for their share of emissions by routinely including carbon offsets in the price of all tickets sold, which would be an indirect way to immediately achieve carbon neutrality. Their future is at stake—didn’t flight shaming all start because the aviation industry was slow to offset carbon and tax kerosene? 

Aviation experts have to face up to their responsibilities, but so must environmentalists. It is not by ruining the aviation industry that we will not solve all our problems. On the contrary, let’s see the current economic crisis as an opportunity to encourage the industry to evolve at an even faster pace. We must not yield to dogmatism by attacking a competitive industry that is a source of employment, knowledge, collaboration, excellence and passion. 

Environmental challenges are providing us with a unique chance to build the aviation industry of the future—we must seize it.

Bertrand Piccard, psychiatrist and explorer, Chairman of the Solar Impulse Foundation 

Catherine Maunoury, world aerobatics champion, President of the Aéro-Club de France



This article was originally published in French in the JDD. Read the original here
The translation was provided by Alto International.


Written by Bertrand Piccard on October 15, 2020

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