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Can air travel be sustainable?

16 October 2020 08:10

Discover how the aviation industry is going green.

Discover how the aviation industry is going green.

Electric planes, self-sufficient terminals and reduced plastic pledges. Learn more about the steps being taken for a greener future in flying...

Carbon offsetting

Carbon offsetting is a simple idea. It's a way of balancing carbon emissions by taking part in initiatives that lower greenhouse gases elsewhere - paying off your debt to the environment, if you will. And for airlines, the ultimate aim is to become 'carbon neutral' through reforestation projects and other eco-friendly actions.

The aviation industry has even committed to 'carbon-neutral growth' after 2020. The Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) is voluntary at the moment, but from 2027 airlines will have to pay to offset any emissions that exceed 2020 levels. How that pans out given the slump in flights this year, we'll have to wait and see. Some critics suggest that CORSIA is a “licence to pollute” and the real goal should be to reduce the amount of carbon we put into the atmosphere in the first place.

Energy efficient planes

A flight today produces only half the CO2 it did in 1990. And the aviation industry has every intention of continuing the trend for greener travel: easyJet is hoping to run electric planes on shorter routes by 2030, while Norway hopes to make all short-haul flights battery powered by 2040.

Aerospace engineers are constantly working to design cleaner planes of the future but they have a tough task ahead of them. Batteries needed for long-haul flights are simply too heavy. Per kilogram, jet fuel contains around 30 times more energy than the best lithium-ion battery on the market.


The aviation industry's most promising solution to reducing emissions could come from sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). Produced using household waste, crops and wood chips, the materials have already absorbed greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Emissions from burning SAFs in flight are reduced by roughly 80% when compared to conventional fuel.

However, forecasts suggest that just 1% of US jet fuel will be SAF in 2020. Why? Currently, it's far more expensive than standard jet fuel and the green alternative is only available in small quantities, although experts predict that this will change within the next decade.

Low-waste flights

Passengers generated over 6.7 million tonnes of cabin waste in 2018 alone. Single-use cutlery, wrapped blankets and disposable toothbrushes mean that much of the rubbish is plastic.

Thankfully though, things are changing. HiFly chartered the first single-use plastic-free flight back in 2018 and more airlines are set to follow their example. Ryanair plans to go plastic-free by 2023, while Qantas, Etihad and Air New Zealand have promised to reduce their landfill deposits.

Added climate tax

The price of a plane ticket could be on the rise in order to reflect the true cost of air travel on the environment. Sweden and France added an eco-tax in 2018 and 2020 respectively, and Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands are set to follow suit. The price hike is intended to reduce demand for flights and raise money for improving greener transport options.

Rather than being left behind, the aviation industry hopes to become part of the solution for sustainable travel. It will be interesting to see if other nations add eco-taxes in the coming years. Many believe that once prices reflect the real environmental cost of flying, airlines will make more impactful efforts to reduce their emissions.

Greener manufacturing

Aircraft and engine manufacturers have also made bold promises to help drive down their CO2 emissions. Just a few years ago, recycling cured carbon fibre wasn't possible. Boeing now send 2 million pounds of the waste to their factories in a bid to reduce what they send to landfill by 20% by 2025. Similarly, Airbus have reduced energy consumption by 30% and reduced water consumption by 43% within five years of launching their blue5 initiative.

Manufacturers Pratt & Whitney may have made the biggest commitment to improving their carbon footprint out of them all. By 2025 they aim to have zero waste in their factories and produce 80% fewer greenhouse gases. They also aim to use 80% less water, leaving none of it to waste.

Eco-friendly airports

Changes are also being made to reduce the carbon footprint in terminals. The world's first 'green airport', the Galapagos Ecological, is designed to run completely on solar and wind power. Meanwhile, Europe's first carbon neutral airport, Stockholm Arlanda International, uses a series of wells to collect its water.

All single-use plastics have been banned from airports in Dubai from early 2020, while half of India's airports have been free from single-use plastic since 2019. And similar approaches are set for the future too, with San Francisco airport aiming to become the first zero waste-to-landfill airport by 2021.

Can air travel be sustainable?

It's clear that aviation is cleaning up its act. And with ever-increasing solutions for a carbon-neutral industry, it's surely only a matter of time before advances in planes, renewable energy production and manufacturing practices are enough to provide a truly green future for aviation.

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