The contested concept of sustainable aviation

Walker, S. and Cook, M. (2009). The contested concept of sustainable aviation. Sustainable Development, 17(6) pp. 378–390.



International passenger aviation has increased threefold in the last 25 years and is predicted to continue a similar rapid expansion over the next 25 years. While bringing considerable economic benefits, growth of the aviation sector is also likely to lead to greater adverse social and environmental impacts. To address this, sustainable aviation policy is framed as a ‘balanced strategy’. While this emphasizes the economic benefits of the aviation sector, it also aims to address the environmental and social impacts that may arise from its expansion. Other groups disagree with this interpretation of sustainable aviation, and there is little rapprochement between environmental NGOs and the aviation sector. Sustainable aviation policy is therefore contested, and different groups are attempting to reframe it to suit their own objectives. A categorization exercise supported by rhetorical, stylistic and thematic analysis was used to identify and explore the environmental discourses that are competing to construct policy for sustainable aviation. The analysis revealed that the discourse category of ecological modernization with an emphasis on environmental technology and management is dominant, that government and aviation sector attempts to achieve discursive closure through the rhetoric of ‘balance’ are failing and that sustainable aviation remains a rich discursive battleground.

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