We could cut particulate pollution from air travel by 60% – but the journey has run into turbulence

Oh, lovely. Image: Getty.

When it comes to reducing carbon emissions, one of the biggest hurdles is the world’s addiction to flying. And this is only going to get more intense as developing countries grow bigger middle classes who want to explore the world for business and pleasure. The Conversation

In the UK, the climate change minister, Nick Hurd, has named transport as one of the two biggest environmental challenges facing the world. But while the government continues to invest in research and infrastructure for electric vehicles, clear action on addressing carbon dioxide for air transport has been lacking.

Our researchin collaboration with Manchester Metropolitan University and Missouri University of Science and Technology has shown that greener aviation fuels could cut not only carbon emissions but also reduce wider air pollution and improve air quality – a key issue in the ongoing debate around Heathrow’s proposed expansion.

The landmark 2015 Paris Agreement on addressing climate change did not include two sectors – aviation and maritime. This is despite aviation accounting for 2 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions. This figure is growing by around 3 per cent a year. Attempts to decarbonise the aviation sector have so far proven complicated.

The process has been delayed by governments trying to agree on how to account for emissions: if a Dutch airline takes off in America and lands in Brazil, which country should take the responsibility for those emissions? The good news is that, in the autumn of 2016, the world’s governments came together under the UN’s specialist agency for aviation, the ICAO and finally reached an agreement. But this agreement is still voluntary and allows airlines to “offset” their carbon emissions.

Beyond this, the industry has set itself a targetto achieve carbon-neutral growth by 2020 and to halve emissions by 2050 compared to 2005 levels. This ambition can only be achieved by a combination of efforts including improvements in engine and airframes, such as new materials to make aircraft lighter, a more emissions-optimised approach to air traffic management and, crucially, by introducing greener alternatives to jet fuel.

These alternative aviation fuels could offer the UK airline industry between 15 per cent and 24 per cent reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050. The UK government is starting to take action, including issuing a consultation on whether to increase the obligation it puts on airlines to increase the level of so-called “renewable fuel” used currently. Running in parallel with this has been a consultation on the future growth of Heathrow airport – and, even in this, alternative fuels could play a part both in terms of lower CO2 emissions if alternative fuel use is increase, and because these fuels contain fewer particulates than conventional fuels.

Our research has shown that particulates from air travel could be reduced by up to 60 per cent by using synthetically produced fuels from feedstocks such as old cooking oil. In simple terms, the oil-baring feedstock can be heated with a catalyst to change its structure and extract the useful chemicals to form a type of fuel that can be used to power jet aircraft.

The Airbus 319 burns 640 gallons of fuel per hour. Image: Nordroden.

There are, of course, challenges which need to be overcome if the role of alternative aviation fuels in tackling climate change and air pollution is to be realised.

Aviation fuel has not changed substantially since the 1960s. The focus of improvements in the efficiency of engines and airframes has been on the continued improvements to technology to the point where we have a highly optimised system based on the use of traditional fuels. If the industry adopted fuels developed from non-conventional sources such as bio-crops this may, in turn, make it possible for the indsutry to make further improvements in engine and airframe technologies based on new fuels. There are three major challenges facing the industry.

Three challenges

Safety: This is the most obvious problem to overcome. The approval process for new fuels is extremely rigorous – airlines will not use fuels unless they know they are completely safe and will not affect the operation and reliability of the aircraft. This process can take several years to complete. To date, only a handful of alternative production routes have been approvedand the sector’s experience of dealing with new molecules in the jet fuel is increasing. Better modelling and earlier testing of fuels should help reduce the time, and cost, of this approvals process and efforts such as the US FAA and the ASCENT programme which aim to accelerate the approvals process in the future.

Economics: The technology for producing alternative aviation fuels is still relatively immature and at a small scale which means that the cost remains higher than for fuel from conventional sources. Further research and development – and increasing the scale of production – will address these issues, as will the introduction of regulations which reward and incentivise airlines to use these fuels.

Sustainability: We need to ensure that the production of alternative fuels works for the environment and people in the regions where these are produced. So, for example, in the case of biofuels, these shouldn’t compete for land with vital food crops. The use of municipal waste or offgases from industrial processes are two alternatives which do not compete with land use are gaining some traction as alternative fuels.

This is an issue that will only get more urgent as more people in developing economies choose to travel by air. We’ve already made a good start – since 2011, more than 2,200 commercial flights have used alternative fuels– but this has to be put in a context of more than 100,000 flights being made worldwide each day.

While the current agreement is voluntary, ICAO has managed to create one of the first global agreements to apply to a specific sector on carbon emissions. Industry and academia now need to deliver the advancements – supported, needless to say, by national governments. That will be crucial if we are to see greener skies overhead any time soon.

Simon Blakey is senior lecturer in mechanical engineering at the University of Sheffield.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.