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Is sustainable aviation even possible and should we all be flight shamed?
Flight shaming is the ideal end to a decade that saw temperature records broken, air travel records broken and a global awakening, as personified by Greta Thunberg. The announcement by Qantas, Australia’s flag carrier airline, that it will be carbon neutral by 2050 is cause for optimism. But can aviation ever be truly sustainable? What other airlines are embracing the possibility of a shared, sustainable future? What role can electric aircraft play? What about those business jets? And what about all that plastic waste generated by in-flight meals and drinks? Will the Scandinavian phenomenon of flight shaming (literally, being ashamed of flying too often) go global? Is airline sustainability positioning just hollow PR, or can we continue to fly while preserving the planet?
Aviation growth continues to boggle the mind
The expansion of the Chinese and Indian middle classes is helping to push commercial aviation towards a doubling of passenger numbers, aircraft and emissions by 2037. With 4.3 billion commercial air journeys having been completed in 2018, IATA (the International Air Transport Association, a private body that represents many airlines) projects that there will be 8.2 billion air travellers in 2037. Meanwhile, the commercial aircraft fleet is projected to more than double in size, from 21,450 tails (2018) to 48,000 in 2037 (source: Airbus). So double up the number of aircraft, the number of flights, the airport hassle, the security lines, the plastic waste, the CO2 emissions. Double the pain. Unless we do something now.
Passenger jet CO2 emissions and global warming
Air travel is responsible for 2% of the world’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, with carbon dioxide (CO2) gas the main constituent. Aircraft emissions also have additional, negative effects because the waste gases are released directly into the upper atmosphere. Planes typically fly at 35,000 feet (over 6 miles/10 km) and the type of aircraft, the kind of flight and the load factor (how many passengers are on board compared to capacity) have a big impact on the emission profile. So, a full, long-haul flight has a greatly reduced impact on the atmosphere per passenger than a half-full, short-haul flight.
In October 2016, the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) agreed on a Resolution for a global market-based measure to address CO2 emissions from international aviation as of 2021. The agreed Resolution sets out the objective and key design elements of the global scheme, as well as a roadmap for the completion of the work on implementing modalities.
The Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation, or CORSIA, aims to stabilise CO2 emissions at 2020 levels by requiring airlines to offset the growth of their emissions after 2020.
ICAO recognizes the need to address the global challenge of climate change and adopted a set of ambitious targets to mitigate CO2 emissions from air transport:
- An average improvement in fuel efficiency of 1.5% per year from 2009 to 2020.
- A cap on net aviation CO2 emissions from 2020 (carbon-neutral growth).
- A reduction in net aviation CO2 emissions of 50% by 2050, relative to 2005 levels.
Qantas and Ryanair lead the way in sustainable flights
Qantas zero carbon by 2050 pledge
Thankfully, some airlines have already started to deal with the sustainability imperative. Qantas, Australia’s flag carrier, recently announced that it’s targeting net zero carbon emissions by 2050, with a “massive expansion” of its green aviation efforts. Qantas plans to offset all growth in emissions from 2020 and invest AUS $50m towards developing sustainable aviation fuels, hopefully including hemp biofuels.
Ryanair’s load factor advantage
Irish LCC (low cost carrier) Ryanair is famous for selling pretty much every seat on every flight and this high load factor brings down the average CO2 emission per passenger/kilometre to the lowest in the industry. While Ryanair’s routes are mostly on the short side, they are rarely domestic, and are often essential (e.g. from Ireland), and Ryanair fleet is very young and efficient. Ryanair bet big on the Boeing 737 MAX, with 135 on order*. The B737 MAX touts fuel efficiencies with new engines and winglets** so that, interestingly, Ryanair rebranded in 2019 as ‘Europe’s lowest emissions, lowest fares airline’.
“We expect anti-flying sentiment to grow and spread.”Alexandre de Juniac, head of IATA, November 2019.
Will you ever be flight shamed?
European airlines are already feeling the impact of a growing movement called flight shaming, or flygskam in Swedish. German airlines have reported an astonishing 12% drop in domestic flight passenger numbers in November 2019 (source: ADV industry group), compared to a year earlier and airlines in Sweden and other countries have also been affected. Teenage activist Greta Thunberg has helped to draw attention to the climate impact of flight when travelling by boat and train. When you consider Europe’s mostly excellent rail network and the pain and anxiety that are integral to the air travel experience (helped along by airports, security, terrorism, the Boeing 737 MAX fiasco), it’s likely that short-haul flights in Europe will become much less popular in time. Alexandre de Juniac, head of IATA, urged carriers to better communicate what they’re doing to reduce emissions, warning: “We expect anti-flying sentiment to grow and spread.”
Flight shaming begone! Top tips for more sustainable flights in 2020
Avoid short flights to avoid flight shaming
Unless you live on an island (like me, sadly, resident in Ireland, a little island with a dysfunctional island – Great Britain – between me and continental Europe), think about alternatives to short-haul flights. Flight shaming in Sweden and Germany has made people think twice about taking short flights, and you should too.
Compare better: Flight shaming is powered by ignorance
When comparing journey times, add up all the time and money wasted travelling to, and hanging around in, airports. Plus the stress. Is it still substantially shorter than rail or other modes of transport? Then you should fly. Otherwise, why bother?
Fly busier airlines longer distances
Try to fly on crowded flights. I know this is a bit counter-intuitive, as the flight experience is typically more horrendous the more people there are onboard. But flights with a high load factor, 80%+, are less harmful to the atmosphere.
Here are some ways you can reduce your plastic waste footprint when flying
- Travel with a refillable water bottle. Often made from double-walled steel to keep water cool, these can be refilled across your journey, preventing multiple instances of plastic bottle waste. Many airports now offer filtered water taps.
- When served a beverage on a flight, decline plastic cups. Or hold onto the cup and re-use it.
- Pack your own food and snacks, in reusable containers.
- Carry your own headphones/earbuds for in-flight entertainment.
- Avoid travel-sized toiletries. These don’t even last a week and generate so much plastic waste. Buy toiletries on arrival or pack your own in checked baggage.
Into a flight shaming future
- Fuel efficiencies will make a difference, just not enough
- CO2 emissions will need to be offset, so airlines will invest heavily in offset partnerships, such as forests and hemp plantations.
- Investment in biofuels, using plants to produce jet fuel instead of petrochemicals, will grow.
- The first ever electric commercial flight literally just happened (Dec 2019), so expect a whole lot more activity around electric flight technologies.
*Ryanair’s B737 MAX aircraft, if ever delivered, will be renamed the B737-8200.
**The winglets that curve up at the ends of aircraft wings to improve lift are modelled on birds’ feathers and can save as much as 4% of fuel!
Carbon offsetting means using plant power to absorb CO2. Here’s our view: https://www.readathriller.com/thriller/biological-machinery-that-can-stop-climate-change-already-exists-its-called-plants/
The Guardian: ‘Flight-shaming’ could slow growth of airline industry, says Iata. Oct 2019: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2019/oct/17/flight-shaming-could-slow-growth-of-airline-industry-says-iata
Qantas carbon offsetting policy: https://www.qantas.com/ie/en/qantas-group/acting-responsibly/our-planet/carbon-offsetting.html
Ryanair’s sustainability wins, and carbon offset partnerships: https://corporate.ryanair.com/environment/
Good Wikipedia article on the environmental impact of aviation: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Environmental_impact_of_aviation
IATA passenger growth projections: https://www.iata.org/pressroom/pr/Pages/2018-10-24-02.aspx
Airbus fleet growth projections: https://www.airbus.com/content/dam/corporate-topics/publications/media-day/GMF-2018-2037.pdf
Future Shocks is the new scifi book by Gary J Byrnes. Journey into a dystopian future, where flight shaming is the least of humankind’s problems: https://www.readathriller.com/thriller/future-shocks-now-in-all-ebook-stores-every-sale-funds-hemp-planting/
Trees: By Nicholas A. Tonelli from Pennsylvania, USA – Lofty, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21219060
A C-141 Starlifter leaves contrails over Antarctica. Original image cropped by Gralo – original source: http://www.af.mil/photos/index.asp?galleryID=22&page=2, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2231665