The Battle over the “Facts” of Aviation’s Environmental Record, and the Power of Media

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The EPA’s issuance of a draft Endangerment Finding moved to the fore debates about CO² standards on US and International forums.

The above two graphics symbolize the impact which gradations and inferences which the below two articles exhibit in the dissemination of the facts in this global political discussion. The use of a red colored lens in photographing the contrails creates a sinister image of aviation, while the green globe and rainbow flight line put flying in a more positive light. Little details can influence public perceptions.

The point is that these messages can impact the world public opinion and those who work in the aeronautical business must monitor and respond to statements of “fact” which may be misleading or wrong!

To parse the Washington Post article, here are some tells about what the author’s shading on this issue may be:

  • The author is “New York-based magazine writer and author of the ‘The Plane That Wasn’t There: Why We Haven’t Found MH370’ and ‘Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger,’” while other bios on him say that “he specializes in aviation, adventure, and psychology.” His resume and writing background are not replete with either education or experience which would make his observations more expert on aviation.
  • His opening starts with a citation to the WWF, a well-respected NGO, but has a long-held opposition to aviation. The “fact” cited in that paragraph is supported by economists and appears to have the underlying mathematics questioned in a reader response.
  • Here’s an example of how his words are intended to prejudge the facts: “a lot of the ‘easy’ fixes have been made.” Perhaps the writer is unaware, or simply chose to ignore, that airframe and powerplant manufacturers have invested Billions of research dollars to improve their noise and carbon footprints. Many of those “easy fixes” required breakthrough discovery of materials, configurations and other methods to improve their environmental performances. Also, the airlines paid for them with no tax benefits like the green ideal Prius.
  • He then cites the radical design of the Solar Pulse as a future example of a possible commercial airliner. While the investors in this innovative technology have confidence that some day, their aircraft may be the future commercial fleet. A simple picture might clearly show that this is not a near term real option.
  • He cites a friend Slate writer Eric Holthaus who has adopted as his personal solution– no longer flying!

The second article admittedly does not focus solely on the environmental aspects of aviation. He addresses the future of airports, supersonic airplanes, UAS, space and the greening of aircraft. The author is a geographer by academic training and his normal beat is not aviation. When he discusses aviation, here are some of his telltale points:

  • “The 2% contribution that aviation makes to global manmade CO2 emissions is lower than many might expect.”
  • “A number of green commitments were agreed to in 2009, the most significant of which is a 50% cut in net emissions by 2050, when compared with 2005 figures.”
  • “To deliver on these commitments, much faith has been placed in the use of biofuel as a substitute for jet fuel.”
    • “These fuels must be made from sustainable, non-food biomass sources such as camelina, halphytes and jatropha. Even used cooking oil, public waste and algae can be converted to a fuel that produces 80% less emissions than its predecessor.”
    • “But this method also faces significant challenges, particularly in ensuring that the production of food crops for biofuel in no way interferes with land use for the production of food…”
    • “There is also a question of economic feasibility, as Peter Hind writes in Regional International: ‘Even adding the carbon cost to the price of jet fuel, it is far more economically advantageous to burn regular fuel and pay the carbon penalty than to switch to biofuel.’”
  • As to the prospects of solar power to be the primary source of energy for powering commercial aircraft, he notes
    • “There is a clear desire to introduce sustainable energy sources but it seems for now they will be used to supplement current operations – like solar power for in-flight electronics or biofuel added to jet fuel – rather than create revolutionary new systems.”

Somewhere between these antipodes lays truth. These two authors have expressed their opinions of the “facts.” The green version is being accepted by many, particularly in Europe. The EU has an aggressive history trying to attack aviation’s contribution to CO² pollution and the public there supports stricter measures. But for strong reactions form ICAO (particularly Africa and Asia) and then once more by the US Congress, limitations on flights to the Continent would be in place now.

It is incumbent on aviation to be vigilant about efforts to mislead the general populace on the industry’s efforts to assume their environmental mantle. If such correction of misleading impressions does not occur, the “Holthaus solution” may become the norm.

POST EVERYTHING: Air travel is terrible for the environment. Can new technology change that?

ARTICLE: Newsweek special report: The future of aviation

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