Sustainability has become a buzzword in global aviation, with countries and corporations around the world pledging to reduce their carbon footprint and support environmentally friendly initiatives. While these efforts are essential, and indeed commendable in concept, it is equally critical to scrutinize the practicality of these Western-driven sustainability initiatives in Africa.
A few years ago, when I was Chief Operations Officer of an airline based in Africa, I received an email from an environmental group based in Europe. It basically accused me of being a “terrorist” and “stealing the lives of future generations” by allowing our little airline to expand its routes. It really highlighted to me the flawed perception of aviation in Africa and its impact on climate change.
Aviation is critical to the development of Africa. In a vast continent where ground infrastructure is concentrated only in disparate pockets, there is often no option to “take a train” without actually building the tracks first. Trade, mobility, development and so many other things that the developed world takes for granted are dependent on aviation to facilitate them. If you want Africans to travel sustainably across their continent, it is far more environmentally friendly to build 3 kilometers of runway than it is to lay 2000 kilometers of railway track or build 2000 kilometers of road.
Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF) are an admirable initiative that many aviation entities are adopting, and many governments are considering mandating. However, SAF production is not a zero-sum game, at least not yet. Converting agricultural production from food to fuel production means less food available at the bottom end of the food chain in developing countries. Is that a cost Africans should be paying to appease the conscience of polluting developed countries? The additional financial costs of SAF also drive airline costs upwards, thus increasing prices and putting air transport out of the economic reach of millions of Africans at a time when the exact opposite should be happening.
Africa will also bear a disproportionate burden of well-meaning emissions schemes such as ICAO’s Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA). These schemes set arbitrary baselines for carbon emissions (2020 in the case of CORSIA), which penalizes smaller airlines from developing markets that are growing, to the benefit of larger Western airlines who have already grown and achieved critical mass hundreds of times larger. While Africa is already feeling the largest impact of climate change due to minimal fault of its own, should it also be expected to foot the bill for absolving the developed world’s sins?
Forcing Western ideals of sustainability on African aviation is basically the first steps towards a new genocide of Africans. Every African traveler forced onto the unsafe roads due to higher airfares is 300% more likely to be killed in a vehicular accident. Every African field converted to produce SAF is another African child destined to die of famine and malnutrition. The emissions from African aviation are a fraction of the emissions from African cows, yet nobody is calling for abandoning dairy production as a solution. Call it neo-colonialism and be honest rather than hiding behind an environmental fig leaf.
Article by Sean Mendis