If you consider yourself to be environmentally-conscious as well as privileged enough to have stepped foot on a commercial airliner (80% of humans never have), you may feel (as I do) an emerging sense of dismay about the state of aviation. If you are lucky enough to have flown United, considered to be the one of the fancier airlines with every seat having its own personal seatback entertainment center, you have no doubt seen their latest attempt to greenwash future investments to offset their heavily-weighted share of carbon emissions. Well, for nearly two minutes I was strapped in and forced to endure a pandering (and no doubt expensive) visual display full of mostly hopes, dreams, and empty promises. It made me angry, and I have channeled that anger into what lies below.
Vicariously I live while the whole world dies.
The colorful commercial opens with impressively pandering panoramas, lush landscapes and awe-inspiring views of the earth from above. As the ad continues to play and we begin to climb above the clouds, I look down below. The horizon before me illuminates a rusting iron jungle winding its way up and down a polluted river flowing with water unsafe for any creature to ingest. Narrated by United’s CEO, a surprisingly-fit boomer reminiscent of Better Caul Saul’s enigmatic Howard Hamlin, the advertisement begins with a dash of humility, alluding to the compounding climate crisis and accurately acknowledging the aviation industry as one of the biggest polluters. While I appreciated Howard’s admission of guilt, acknowledging that United and the other airlines are among the biggest atmospheric appropriators, I found their proposed solutions too heavily reliant on technologies either yet to practically exist or in their infancies. As the old world dies and the new one struggles to be born, condemning the future to solve the problems of the past is presently the wrong trajectory.
You all feel the same.
United, in a similar step with the rest of the industrialized world, aims to be carbon neutral by 2050. The plan is to achieve net zero primarily through the use of bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). Anyone paying attention to BECCS knows that the technology, at this moment, has major infrastructural and scalar concerns, as well as emits more carbon than it consumes. BECCS is largely untested and would require the landmass 4x the size of India to be effective at scale. This would eat up more arable land, add more emissions to an overstretched atmosphere, as well as contribute to additional biodiversity loss. This amounts to nothing more than an asinine attempt to offset emissions by creating MORE emissions. Stimulating, or as social scientist Timothée Parrique refers to economic growth, agitating the economy endlessly is what has gotten us into this quandary in the first place.
I won’t let you bury it.
Another path Big Aviation is pursuing is the use of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). The industry claims SAF can be made similarly to biofuels, which are derived from cooking/waste oils, solid wastes and energy crops. SAF indeed can be useful and effective at lowering carbon footprints through utilizing products already considered to be waste. Some SAF already exists in blends of up to 50% SAF combined with traditional jet fuel. Its biggest upside is that it can be pumped into existing infrastructure and planes with little modification. The downside is that it is more costly to produce than traditional jet fuel and still very much in its beginning stages of development. Making SAF ubiquitous would require government subsidization and major redistribution efforts that currently have no political momentum in the w.e.i.r.d. (western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic) parts of the world. SAF could be an effective tool in combatting climate change, but needs to be combined with a downscaling of overall production and consumption to achieve carbon neutrality rapidly. SAF is not a silver bullet.
I won’t let you smother it.
United is betting on the thing all investors bet on: the future. They assume, based on the consistently increasing rate of technological improvement, that BECCS and SAF will be advanced enough in 20 or so years to offset the emissions emitted by an industry that-if classified as a country-is the 6th biggest polluter by country on Earth. Most experts agree that we have an ever-shortening amount of time to decarbonize. We could have had until 2050 if we began this process five decades ago — when scientists produced clear models illuminating how a world dominated by fossil fuels is truly unsustainable. Some experts believe we now have a decade or less to ground ourselves back in reality before global temperatures cascade to a level that fosters an irreversible planetary catastrophe.
I won’t let you murder it.
Betting on the future to solve problems of the past equals par for the course. This logic is proving disastrous and needs to be discarded. The present is all we have now. The actions we do or do not take right now will have impacts that determine the course of humanity for the remainder of this strange century and hopefully beyond. Hard work is ahead. It will require change. Change is never easy, especially large-scale societal change. But all things change, albeit at different paces. Some change, such as continental shift, can occur at the snail’s pace, a rate measured in millions of years. However, earthquakes last hardly more than a few moments and affect major geological change. We should not be afraid of change; it is inevitable and an immutable law of nature. We can either run from it, or face it head on. The future depends on what we do now.
Our time is running out.
The planet is beginning to boil. Every day that goes by, planetary systems are faltering and, in some cases, failing. Lake Mead has dropped so low that intake valves, and human bodies, are being exposed for the first time since it was built barely a century ago. On the other side of the planet ¼ of Pakistan is currently underwater as glaciers melt at an unprecedented pace leaving tens of millions of human lives uncertain. We know we cannot stop the change coming, it has already begun. But the best chance for mankind to make it out of the 21st century involves less posturing, more organization and more urgency. While the money we have, time we do not. Continuing with growth-as-usual while attempting to bury our mistakes (figuratively and literally) will not bring this vessel in for the safe landing we all desire.
You can’t push it underground.
Aviation (and the rest of industry) does not have until 2050 to get to net zero. Changes need to be made now to make major dents in its massive footprint. Immediate changes, such as a moratorium on new airport development and a downscaling of regional airports, can help degrow the aviation sector. Policies and programs such as a frequent flyer levy or an air mile levy could disincentivize travelers from flying frivolously and consider using other modes of transportation. Businesses and individuals might reconsider taking short flights and instead conduct business virtually if a levy was introduced that increased the price of flying the more you fly. Perhaps a more attainable goal could be to start by removing the first class and business class sections out of commercial aircraft to allow for more economy seating, thereby reducing class delineation as well as individual footprints.
We want it all.
The single biggest step that could be taken, which would instantly cause a dramatic drop in emissions, would be the banning of private jets. In a world where 1% of the people contribute to 50% of commercial aviation emissions, ending the conspicuous use of private jets would be a gamechanger. As with many other injustices occurring worldwide with regards to overconsumption leading to environmental degradation, a small percentage of us — those at the top — are the biggest culprits. Elon should not be able to waste the emissions-some individuals contribute in a year-on a 9-minute flight to avoid bay area traffic.
We demand the impossible.
Pouring millions into the advertising campaigns to alert us to an intent to bring about decarbonization in one of the planet’s most harmful industries eventually is wasteful. Those millions would have been better spent providing the Global South with resources to battle the growing and ongoing effects of the climate change. We have currently given the people of Pakistan the equivalency of $4 a person. The money could be better spent assisting climate refugees, as they continue to knock on the Global North’s door in what will be an increasing frequency in the days and years ahead.
There’s a better way to build a world.
I am not writing this piece to shake my fist at some of us, the ones who are lucky enough to be able use air travel occasionally and sparingly; I am aiming my anger at aviation as a whole as well as those at the top of the economic ladder; those who see it as their right to fly callously and carefree above while those below suffer the consequences. The view from above too often obscures the reality down below. We can no longer look to those with their heads in the clouds. We have more in common with those below us than those above. We are not at all united, but we can be. We can stay grounded. We can link arms with those next to us and become stronger than the sum of our parts. We can create the change we want-̶̶the change we need.
Where every hand is held and holding on.