Why is there still no scaleable form of ‘decarbonising’ aircraft travel in the near future?

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The International Air Transport Association (IATA) currently estimates that 4,6 billion passengers will travel by air this year alone, and expects this number to double by 2040! But how does air travel influence our climate? Currently air travel is responsible for 3% of global carbon emission. According to the CEO of Lufthansa Carsten Spohr, the best ways to reduce the impact that aviation has on the environment are by: 1) increasing fuel efficiency, 2) consistently modernising air craft - a new aircraft cuts carbon emission by 25% and noise by 50%, 3) optimising operations and infrastructure in the air and on the ground, 4) introducing a carbon compensation program for organisations supported by the IATA which aims to “neutralise” an aircraft’s carbon emission on a particular journey by investing in carbon reduction programs, 5) exploring new avenues such as synthetic fuels and electric planes, and, finally, 5) reducing plastic waste and waste in general on flights.

Whilst Carsten Spohr’s suggestions are all excellent, one of the biggest challenges of the aviation industry remains, that there is still no scaleable form of ‘decarbonising’ aircraft in the near future. Firstly, it is a long way to go before our commercial flights are powered by electric engines. Also the production of synthetic fuels made from renewable power is not yet efficient and cheap. Even using biofuel poses a sustainability challenge, both in terms that its supply may be limited or that the biofuel could be used more efficiently in other sectors. Also, if large amounts of biofuel would be used it could lead to even more deforestation of land. Another challenge is that biofuel is not carbon-neutral as such, as growing crops also requires energy. Finally, companies like Lufthansa might be interested in using biofuel, but for a lot of other airlines using biofuel is just not attractive. The main reason behind this is that for the aviation industry fuel costs typically account for up to 40% of carriers’ total operating costs.

So, what can be done to reduce the environmental impact of flying? Sadly, aviation continues to be one of the most energy and carbon intensive forms of transport, whether measured per passenger km or per hour travelling. David Suzuki Foundation confirms that “compared to other modes of transport, such as driving or taking the train, travelling by air has a greater climate impact per passenger kilometre, even over longer distances. It’s also the mode of freight transport that produces the most emissions.”

Another threat is that planes add to global warming because they produce contrails which can be seen in the sky behind airplanes. Contrails consist of water droplets and ice. Unfortunately, again David Suzuki Foundations affirms that contrails “stay in the sky for many hours, and can spread two kilometres wide before dispersing. The net effect of these contrails is to trap heat that would otherwise escape from the Earth, which contributes to global warming.”

Hence, we must acknowledge that presently there is no sustainable alternative to air travel and the only way to really reduce the carbon footprint of flying is to:1) fly less, 2) offset flying by, for example, planting trees, 3) never fly business or first class as seats are bigger, which means that fewer people are being moved by the same amount of fuel, 4) stay longer at your holiday destination, 5) fly by a direct route where possible, 6) try to use trains, and, finally, 7) try to holiday closer to home.

For more information on carbon compensation program by IATA: https://www.iata.org/whatwedo/environment/Pages/carbon-offset.aspx

For more information on biofuel: https://www.aef.org.uk/issues/climate/alternative-fuel/

For more information to improve the climate when using a plane: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/27/climate/airplane-pollution-global-warming.html

For more information on air travel and climate change: https://davidsuzuki.org/what-you-can-do/air-travel-climate-change/