Travelling by plane has never been more popular, with some four billion passengers catching flights annually. Yet travellers are also becoming increasingly aware of climate change, and the carbon footprint of flying.
Planes account for around 2% of global CO2 emissions, a figure expected to grow to 16% by 2050. The aviation industry causes emissions over and above those of the planes themselves, through processes including the transportation of fuel and the manufacture and maintenance of aircrafts.
“The environmental impact of flying is staggering,” says Tanguy Tomes, an aviation expert at Eunomia, an international environmental consultancy. “As well as carbon dioxide emissions, noise and air pollution from flights damages the health and wellbeing of humans and wildlife. There is not enough being done to address the impacts of aviation.”
So it’s no surprise that a no-fly movement – a community of people who are either giving up air travel or drastically reducing the number of flights they take – is building. In Sweden, a new term has emerged (“flygskam”, meaning “flight shame”), while in the UK, Siân Berry, co-leader of the Green party, has called on people to take no more than one flight a year.
Photo: credit to jeshoots.com, Unsplash
A key issue identified by campaigners is the low-cost of aviation fuel, which has remained untaxed since the Chicago Convention of 1944. Peter McManners, author of Fly and Be Damned, believes changing the aviation economic model is crucial.
“Taxing aviation fuel should be a no-brainer,” he says. “Airlines will complain, pleading higher costs, but that is because they burn such huge quantities of fuel. Until there is such a tax, low-carbon flying technology is not commercially viable.” The concept is gaining traction, with President Macron supporting a Europe-wide tax on aviation fuel to curb emissions.
Airlines are responding to environmental concerns. Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) has pledged to reduce total carbon emissions by 25% by 2030. To achieve this, the airline will transition to biofuels (with a goal of using 17% biofuel by 2030) and replace less energy efficient aircrafts. “Our fleet will not grow in number, but the new aircrafts are larger,” Lars Andersen Resare, Head of Environment and CSR at SAS, says. “In 2023, we anticipate almost 14% lower total carbon emissions and a growth in available seat and cargo kilometres.”
Technologies designed to reduce the environmental impact of flying are underway. Top of the list are “carbon neutral” biofuels – key part to many airlines’ future carbon strategies. In 2008, Virgin Atlantic scored an “industry first”, flying a 747 to Amsterdam with one of its engines using a 20% biofuel mix made from coconut oil and babassu nuts.
Other airlines have followed suit, and experts predict this to be a growing trend. “Biofuels drop costs, eliminate pollution and open markers around the world, as they can be made using algae, tobacco and other local crops,” says Paul Kostek, senior IEEE member and aviation expert.
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Electric planes are the next step, with experts predicting their arrival in large aircrafts within 20 years. Several startups are developing electric engines, such as Zunum, who are building a small passenger aircraft with a range of 1,000 miles. “The challenge is battery size and then managing turn-around at destinations,” says Kostek. “Do you replace the batteries on the aircraft or wait for a recharge?”
Some passengers use carbon offsetting – adding up their emissions using online calculators and paying extra to support a project that “cancels out” this CO2, such as tree planting. But critics say offsets are a mere drop in the ocean. “Essentially we need to change our patterns of travel, and to fly less,” Justin Francis, CEO of Responsible Travel, claims.
For hoteliers, this means attracting more domestic customers who don’t need to fly, and linking to train transport. “People will be taking fewer but longer holidays, where they can make a more positive impact within a destination,” Francis says. “Hotels should give customers car-free alternatives both to arrive at their accommodation and for getting around during their stay. Offer charging points for electric cars, promote bike hire and walking routes and encourage the use of public transport with special deals negotiated for guests.”
Hotels should also focus on carbon reduction schemes – integrating local, sustainable projects into the business, like sourcing materials locally and using self-sustainable energy. Francis advises hotels to publish their results – including their supply chain. “This will be reassuring for people who do choose to fly, and who want a lower carbon option in the destination.”
Hero image: credit to Ross Parmly, Unsplash
- Planes account for around 2% of global CO2 emissions, but this figure is expected to rise to 16% by 2050
- The no-fly movement is growing, and the term “flight shame” has developed in Sweden, with people reducing the number of flights they take or giving up air travel altogether
- A number of technologies are being tested within the aviation industry to tackle the problem of climate change, including “carbon neutral” biofuels and electric planes, which could appear on a commercial scale within the next 20 years
- Hoteliers should look to domestic travellers and offer guests train transport links or car-free alternatives. Focusing on carbon reduction schemes and publishing results for guests to see will also reassure those who do choose to fly, but want a greener option at the destination