New academic paper shows how “Technology myths” are unduly influencing aviation climate policy

A new research study by a group of academics from a range of countries has looked at claims made by the aviation industry that it will achieve substantial carbon savings in future. They conclude that many of these claims could be described as “myths” as they have often just been used to give favourable publicity to the industry, before rapidly being proven to be over-hyped. Some of these technologies are alternative fuels, such as animal fats or jatropha; also solar power planes; or new forms of aircraft. None of these hoped-for technologies have any likelihood of making more than small contributions to future fuel efficiency. At best, they will be small improvements per plane – set against far larger growth of the industry – resulting in a large overall increase in carbon emissions. The authors make the point that the hype and the positive media coverage that the “myth” technologies permit are damaging. The unrealistic hopes for low carbon flying in future convinces politicians (who maybe happy to be so persuaded) to give the industry the benefit of the doubt, and permit its continuing growth – ever hoping for a marvellous new technology, just around the corner, which will lead to “sustainable” flying. The unjustifiably optimistic PR of the industry has implications for decisions such as that of a new runway in the south east.


“Technology myths” are stalling aviation climate policy

A new academic study has identified that “myths” surrounding aviation technology developments, such as biofuels and solar power flights may have delayed action to address aviation emissions.

The study, published in the journal Transportation Research Part D: Transport and Environment, by academics including the University of Surrey’s Scott Cohen and Paul Peeters of the Dutch University of Applied Sciences, looked at media coverage of technical solutions to aviation CO2 emissions put forward over the past 20 years.

The research was based on the idea that many of the new aviation technologies covered in the media contribute towards the ‘myth’ of zero-carbon flights and ‘sustainable’ aviation, detracting from the perceived need for policy measures.

The research builds on other recent academic and Government studies which have identified that continued growth of the aviation industry is expected to continue to outstrip technological improvements, leading to the sector becoming a growing contributor to climate change (see previous articles by AEF here and here).

The paper also highlights that the forecast growth in aviation emissions contradicts both the aviation industry’s pledge to reduce overall CO2 emissions on a net basis and media coverage talking up the future prospect of a ‘zero emission flight’.

The research evaluates the IATA CO2 emissions roadmap out to 2050 which considered the role of technology, alternative fuels and market-based measures (see illustration below).

Source: IATA CO2 roadmap

IATA, aviation industry 2050 CO2 roadmap. Source: Page 8  IATA CO2 roadmap 2013

Compared to the necessary pathway for aviation to contribute fairly to reducing emissions (defined in the research as an 80% cut in emissions below 2015 levels), the study argues that the industry’s target falls short.

IATA’s roadmap is also criticised for its lack of accountability as the effectiveness of the various strategies to contribute to absolute emission reductions cannot be presently judged and evaluated. The industry’s envisioned goal of annual efficiency improvements of 1.5% is challenged.

According to the research, the aviation industry has been able to portray its CO2 emissions roadmap in the context of the industry making progress towards sustainability goals, as an energy efficient transport mode and a marginal source of emissions, obscuring overall emissions growth.

In this context, the research looked at media coverage of nine technologies proposed as potential solutions for aviation emissions:

  • airframe (laminar flow),
  • airframe (composite aircraft), and
  • blended wing bodied aircraft),
  • engine (solar flight) and
  • engine (electric aircraft), and
  • alternative fuels (Jatropha),
  • alternative fuels (animal fats),
  • alternative fuels (hydrogen) and
  • alternative fuels (algae).

The analysis revealed that over time coverage of some technologies peaked and declined, particularly those related to new fuels. For example, it argues Jatropha and animal fat biofuels contributed to the ‘sustainable’ aviation myth but have largely been abandoned by the industry.  In their place, new “technology myths” have emerged which, according to the study, overstate their potential such as composite aircraft.

Another technology receiving coverage and perpetuating the myth of a truly sustainable aviation industry just around the corner is solar powered flight. According to the research, “flying directly on solar energy, i.e. with solar cells on wings, with a significant payload and at a significant speed, is therefore physically impossible.”

Any improvements are of course welcomed and encouraged, but it remains a challenge for policy makers to ensure that decisions are based on a realistic idea of future technology improvements in the aviation sector.

This has relevance for both the decision of a global market based measure set to be agreed this year and the decision on airport expansion in the South East.

The paper is available at




The section on composite bodies states: 

Composite aircraft

Composites are composed of high strength fibres bonded together in a mass of resin. Composites offer the advantages of lighter weight structures and better ability to reach the ideal aerodynamic form. It is not a new technology, with reference in aircraft design handbooks in the 1970s (e.g. Corning, 1976), however it has received steadily increasing media attention since 2007, much associated with the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Media search on composite aircraft yielded 288 articles published in the period 1994–2013; this technology has been received with great anticipation. The B787 was described as a “revolutionary carbon-composite aircraft” (The Independent, 24/6/2009). The Daily Telegraph described new carbon composite aircraft as “a ‘game changer’ for the aviation industry” and “the greatest aviation advance since the passenger airline jet age began in the early 1950s” (17/11/2011). Airlines were quick to place orders for the “…new generation of lighter weight, composite aircraft such as the A350 or B787” (The South China Morning, 2/12/2005).

Media reference to the potential advantages of composite aircraft has focussed overwhelmingly on the financial performance of airlines rather than emissions mitigation. Regarding a Jetstar fleet upgrade, The Australian (2/3/2012) referred to the “…composite aircraft’s much touted 20% boost to fuel efficiency”, but only in relation to a projected “…10 to 15% boost to the airline’s bottom line”. When Qantas received new carbon-composite aircraft in 2011 it was announced as keeping “…airfares affordable in coming decades by curbing the worst of fuel price spikes” due to …“cheaper cost per kilometre” (Daily Telegraph, 17/11/2011).

Post-war metal fuselage airliners are being steadily succeeded by new generation composite aircraft, which provide weight advantages that should be considered evolutionary rather than revolutionary (Airbus, 2007, IATA, 2009a, IATA, 2011 and ICAO, 2007). The contribution of carbon-composite aircraft to fuel savings however is relatively small: on average an empty weight reduction of 5% can be expected where composites replace conventional aluminium structures (Raymer, 2012). The A350 and B787 have over 50% composites (ICAO, 2014); Raymer et al. (2011) calculate that replacing half an aircraft’s structure with composites may save 1–4% of fuel, i.e. considerably less than communicated in the media. Like laminar flow, composite can be viewed as a technology that will gradually enhance fuel efficiency, but at a slow pace.



The section on animal fats from the report states: 

Animal fats

Animal fats were referred to in 61 media articles, with a short peak in interest in 2011. The Austin American Statesman reported (21/8/2009) that “[a] company called Dynamic Fuels is building a $138 million factory in Louisiana that will turn animal fat into high-grade synthetic diesel and potentially even jet fuel”, further claiming that “[t]his is the cleanest fuel on the planet”. In 2011 The Business Standard (1/7/11) stated that “KLM Royal Dutch became the first airline in the world to operate a commercial flight, carrying 171 passengers, on bio-kerosene produced from used cooking fuel oil”. It was claimed in the US that “[h]istorians may look back at this week, when passenger jets in the United States first made regular flights with fuels made from algae and French fry grease, both as the beginning of a new era in aviation” (The Origonian, 10/11/2011).

That same year IATA was reported to have estimated that “… replacing 3 percent of the kerosene in jet fuel would reduce aviation CO2 emissions by over 10 million tons, at an initial cost of $10 to $15 billion in production and distribution facilities” (The International Herald Tribune, 26/10/2011). While animal fats are suggested as biofuel feedstock wastes that do not compete with food production ( Hileman et al., 2009), a critical barrier arises from the fact that bio-kerosene produced from animal fats has far too high a freezing point (Vera-Morales and Schäfer, 2009). Therefore it is used in blends of up to a maximum of 20% (Hileman et al., 2009). Overall, the public discourse of animal fats was short-lived.


The section on fuel from algae states: 


Media search for algae biofuel returned only 48 items, centred on optimistic reporting in 2008 accompanied by increasing realism in 2010. In 2007 Air New Zealand and Boeing collaborated to “…create the world’s first environmentally friendly aviation fuel, made of wild algae” (The Independent Financial Review, 18/7/2007). At that time Boeing stated publicly “…that it believes algae is the airline fuel of the future” and that “…algae ponds totalling 34,000 square kilometres could produce enough fuel to reduce the net CO2footprint for all of aviation to zero” (Brewer, 1991).

Forecasts published in 2008 noted that “…by 2030, algae-based biofuels could replace fossil-derived fuels usage to the equivalent of 12% of the world’s annual jet fuel consumption – cutting more than 160 million tonnes of CO2 yearly” (The Evening Herald, 27/10/2008). Media interest in algae biofuel was particularly apparent in the US:

“Algae are fast-growing, consume CO2 and have the potential to produce more oil per acre than other biofuels. The oils they produce can be used to make substitutes for diesel fuel, aviation fuel and gasoline. Backers say the U.S. could meet its entire liquid-fuel needs with algal biofuels.”   The Wall Street Journal, 22/2/2010

The following year The Portland Press Herald (14/6/2011) described the US algae biofuel industry as being “…on the cusp of economic feasibility” given increasing “…investment in biodiesel by oil companies, airlines and the US government”.

These discourses have been accompanied by less optimistic forecasts. The National Post (16/6/2007) suggested “[a] 10% mix of biofuels with jet fuel would be a more likely scenario in the near future” and that “just to meet the 10% goal for the U.S. airline industry for one year, a land mass the size of Florida would be required”. Indeed “…as promising as the technology is, it hasn’t proved that it can produce fuels in sufficient quantities or at a low enough cost to make a dent in US liquid-fuel consumption” (The Wall Street Journal, 22/2/2010). More recently the “…economic viability of such biofuels of algae has been questioned”, with predictions that algae biofuels will “…only be viable when oil hits $800 a barrel” (The Washington Post, 28/2/2012).

Despite modest media uptake, microalgae are often mentioned in industry reports as an alternative fuel for crude oil-based kerosene (Airbus, 2011, ATAG, 2010, ATAG, 2011a,ATAG, 2011b, IATA, 2005, IATA, 2009a, IATA, 2012, ICAO, 2007, ICAO, 2009 and WTTC, 2009). Microalgae are considered to have several advantages over other feedstocks, such as the ability to live on marginal grounds (but in artificial or natural water-basins), efficiently convert sunlight to oil, grow year-round and produce many high value by-products (Hu et al., 2008). But there are also barriers: land-use (Skarka, 2012) and water use, low or negative lifecycle carbon emission reductions (Quinn and Davis, 2014), cost and alternative use (Coplin, 2012). The prospects of algae as a feedstock to produce biofuels consequently remain unclear.


The report’s Discussion and Conclusion state: 

Discussion and conclusion

This analysis has shown that there exists a wide range of discourses with regard to the potential of technology to make significant contributions to climate change mitigation in aviation. Analysis with regard to airframes, engines and fuels reveals, however, that many of the proposed solutions emerge and are hyped in the media, only to subsequently disappear again from public discourse. This was shown on the basis of a media analysis, which provided evidence that all fuel solutions (hydrogen, animal fats, Jatropha and algae) had already ‘peaked’ in terms of media attention, and, except for algae, been abandoned as feasible solutions. Hydrogen, Jatropha and algae each saw a spike in interest in 2008, i.e. the year after the fourth assessment report of the IPCC (2007) had been released, drawing worldwide attention to the need to engage in mitigation and increasing pressure on the aviation industry to act on climate change. With regard to the remaining discourses, results suggest that blended wing body has also been abandoned as a solution, while solar and electric flight (engine), and laminar flow and composite aircraft (airframes) represent emerging discourses in the public domain, despite the increasing application of laminar flow and composites, and research on solar and electric flight, since the 1970s. Notably, the notion of commercial solar flight is rejected by Airbus and ATAG, but considered a feasible innovation by ICAO (Table 2).

Given these findings, this paper concludes that most of the ‘solutions’ that have been presented over the past 20 years constitute technology myths. Specifically, it is possible to distinguish three types of myths, i.e.

(i) myths that refer to abandoned technologies once seen as promising; [eg. fuel from used cooking oil or jatropha].

(ii) myths that refer to emerging technology discourses, though generally overstating the realistic potential offered by these technologies (and some of these potentially representing dead ends as well); [ eg. hydrogen fuelled planes] and

(iii) myths that refer to solutions that are impossible for physical reasons; this latter type of myth exemplified by the notion of solar flight.

Results also indicate that there are always various technology discourses co-existing, i.e. even in a situation where a discourse is abandoned, various other ‘solutions’ remain available. This is likely to have repercussions for governance.

Policymakers are increasingly confronted with technological promises that require them to make decisions based on interpreting technical uncertainties (Borup et al., 2006). As shown in Fig. 1, industry has created a vision of climate mitigation in aviation that incorporates various elements of non-accountability, as the solution is built on a range of strategies; foresees continued growth in emissions for another two decades; and will consequently contribute to mitigation only in the long-term future.

As such, the roadmap to mitigation is difficult to question, because continued emission growth is an anticipated development, while the effectiveness of the various strategies to contribute to absolute emission reductions cannot be presently judged and evaluated. Multiple technologies providing partial solutions make it difficult to monitor progress.

Furthermore, this vision of sustainable aviation is embedded in notions of progress towards sustainability goals, i.e. presenting aviation as an energetically efficient transport mode and a marginal source of emissions in global comparison (Gössling and Peeters, 2007), which obscures continued absolute growth in greenhouse gas emissions with relative (annual) efficiency gains.

Under these prevailing conditions an understanding of aviation as a sector soon-to-become-sustainable has been, and continues to be, successfully perpetuated. Ultimately, this would constitute a form of propaganda in which emotional responses to aviation, for instance framed as the sector’s social and economic benefits, are fuelled by pseudo-rational information – myths – to generate a widely held understanding of, and continuing faith in a looming future of sustainable aviation, and, ultimately, “zero emission flight” (Snyder, 1998).

This situation has implications for climate policy, because aviation as a transnational activity is difficult to govern politically. In this situation, politicians may embrace myths to justify non-action beyond efficiency improvements achieved through technology.

For instance, UK Energy Secretary Ed Davey suggested that “If you look at the future of flight it is possible to imagine, with technological innovation, that we will have zero-carbon flight in the future” (Guardian, 7/10/2014). This view may reflect a genuine belief in technology myths, or represent a convenient way to avoid upsetting the established ‘order’ (Gössling and Cohen, 2014), i.e. to initiate legislation aimed at the reducing growth in the volume of air transport itself and replacing it with other transport modes or alternative travel patterns (Peeters and Dubois, 2010).

Such policy measures would be likely to lead to resistance from lobby groups, industry, the public, and political opposition. Indeed this line of research might be carried forward in a comparative analysis to identify the relationships, including lag effects, between the media and policy-makers (and others such as lobby groups and industry).

While our research did not investigate the relationship between agency releases, media reporting and policy action, research that is theoretically grounded in agenda setting and applied in a defined socio-political and temporal context would provide valuable insights into the agency-media-policy nexus.

In the meantime, in this paper we conclude that aviation technology myths must be recognised, confronted and overcome as a critical step in the pathway to sustainable aviation climate policy.