Aviation Emissions,

Net Zero Modelling, and

Post-Growth Transition


By Piers Locke

Those committed to the transformative change of a post-growth transition have cause to cast a critical eye on Green Growth roadmaps for Net Zero. These are plans for maintaining the business of modern life in the face of climate crisis through technological and regulatory change, without reduction in material and energetic throughput, and without willingness to entertain social transformation. Ecological economist Jefim Vogel and anthropologist Jason Hickel recently conducted a study to see if high income countries have achieved Green Growth decoupling sufficient to meet Paris Agreement-level emissions reductions. They find that they have not, and are extremely unlikely to in future [1].

I recently gave a deputation to Christchurch City Council about aviation emissions in which I informed elected members of the problematic modelling of roadmaps for Net Zero aviation and their greenwishing propaganda function. I also have an academic article being published about Christchurch airport’s decarbonisation and energy transition planning.


Now I have made a submission to the Climate Change Commission regarding the proposal to include international aviation and shipping emissions within New Zealand’s 2050 targets, which I fully support. The Commission produced a well-informed consultation report for this. However, there are serious problems with the Net Zero roadmaps discussed, which do not receive sufficiently critical attention.


So what are the problems?


1. Growth

Roadmaps produced by national governments and industry groups assume that continued aviation growth within 2050 carbon budgets will be possible by decoupling economic activity from its environmental costs and impacts. Peer-reviewed scientific assessments cast doubt on this.

2. Resources

Roadmaps focus on the production of sustainable aviations fuels (SAFs) from biogenic feedstocks and on zero emission aircraft powered by electricity and green hydrogen. Systemic assessments of feedstocks, of critical metals and minerals, and of the viability of timely up-scaling are not considered, although peer-reviewed scientific papers and other reports do. The emissions reduction claims made for SAFs are questionable, and even targets mandating less than 10% SAFs by 2030 are found not to be remotely feasible.


3. Systemic risks

Roadmaps barely consider the non-linear impacts of climate change or possibilities for conflict over scarce resources. Polycrisis is a useful concept for thinking through the causal entanglement of multiple systems and the reinforcing feedbacks between social and ecological crises. It features in the WEF’s 2023 Global Risks Report, but is yet to appear in aviation roadmaps. I note that in 2023 the Taskforce for Nature-related Financial Disclosures (TNFD) has
recommended organisations consider systemic risk in addition to the physical and transition risks already being normalised in climate disclosure regimes.

4. Sufficiency and equity

Sector-centric roadmaps, concerned with guaranteeing continued profitability, are loathe to consider demand-side restrictions to reduce air travel, or to address the fact that the majority of air passenger transport is the preserve of a wealthy minority. This is not to deny the necessity of international connectivity and air freight for New Zealand- without it, for instance, many of us would be deprived of medicines crucial for our health. Again, other kinds of roadmap reports, which consider the energy costs for all sectors and the difficult choices to decide among them, do exist. The International Energy Agency (IEA) for instance, models a 12% reduction in passenger flights for a global warming scenario limited to 1.5 degrees above the pre-industrial norm. CLEVER, the Collaborative Low Energy Vision for the European Region, takes a bolder approach, incorporating the values of sufficiency, efficiency, and renewables. This means it not only considers how we can improve our systems and transition off fossil-fuels, but also contends that in doing so we should decide what we need rather than allowing unfettered growth for the sake of profit.


Despite the science, mainstream transition planning and the climate-economy models they depend on, do not yet question the viability of continued economic growth. Inevitably, the models and the plans must. Read more in my submission to the Commission.


[1] Vogel, J & J Hickel. 2023. Is green growth happening? An empirical analysis of achieved versus Paris-compliant CO2-GDP decoupling in high-income countries. Lancet Planetary Health 7 pp.759-769.