Up In The Air
Before getting into the possibility of sustainable flying, I want to preface this article by acknowledging the privilege of being able to travel. Globally, less than one fifth of the population has had the chance to fly. Even as air-travel becomes more affordable, few people get the chance to partake in it. Still, air-travel offers a lot of benefits in our globalized world.
Families who live across borders or oceans are often able to see each other semi-regularly – something that would have been unimaginable years ago. Businesses can operate and work together across nations. As well, air-travel offers people the chance to see the world! For some, like myself, this offers the chance to become closer with nature through traveling while living in an urbanized world.
Air-travel however, is not without its impact on the climate. While it connects people to nature, it destroys it in another. In fact, two per cent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions come from planes. At this point in time, flying is far from sustainable.
The Current Impact of Flying
Although the Covid-19 pandemic has halted a lot of air-travel, the impacts before the pandemic were growing at a drastic rate. Each year aviation emits around 860 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the air we breathe.
In the Arctic, areas under busy routes can have pollutants from these flights contribute as much as one-fifth to the warming! Unfortunately, that’s not all! Changes to shopping habits have also contributed to the pollution from aviation. Overnight and short time frame shipping by companies such as Amazon have led to more cargo aircrafts being bought and used – contributing to the growing problem.
Environmental impact does vary depending on the type of flight you’re taking. The most unsustainable are short-hauls. It’s due to the fact that take-offs and landings consume the most fuel, while cruising at high altitudes is the most fuel-efficient part of flying!
Environmental impact also varies depending on the ticket you choose. Flying first-class can be more carbon intensive by up to three times that of flying business. This is due to the weight of the seats and space they require.
What Others are Doing to Make Flying Sustainable
The most popular solution currently is buying carbon credits and offsets. This is becoming a regular option at ticket checkouts and some air travel companies are offsetting their flights all together.
It’s hard to calculate however how much carbon to offset as there are a lot of influences that contribute to emissions from planes. Furthermore, research shows a full three quarters of offsets bought don’t deliver what they claim to!
Eco-guilt surrounding flying is getting to people around the world (pssst, if you’re looking for tips to reconcile your eco-guilt click this link). A lot of people are quitting flying all together. This is the case in Sweden where flyskam, shame from flying, is becoming a popular term. Some airports in Sweden are even reporting a decline in travellers due to this movement.
Choosing to reduce your air travel doesn’t mean you can’t travel anymore! There are more sustainable traveling options. For instance by rail, as trains produce way less carbon per person than flying.
Understandably, not everyone wants to go as far as to give up flying all together. Some are making the conscious choice to cut back on flying, while others are hoping for a more sustainable flying future. So what does that look like?
The good news is, there are options! The bad news, few of those options are viable at this moment.
There has been talk of the future of fully electric planes and flights. While this sounds exciting and achievable in theory – in reality it is extremely complex and unattainable, at least for now.
The issue with flying is that it’s extremely energy intensive. To fly a plane you need around 11,8890 watt-hours per kilogram of weight. Batteries can store, at best, 265 watt-hours per kilogram. These batteries are also extremely heavy, contributing to the overall weight of the plane which means more energy needed to lift it.
Batteries still have a long way to go until they can become a reliable source of energy to fly in the sky. Still, some airlines, like easyJet, are hoping to run electric planes on their short-haul flights as early as 2030!
Alternatively, some hybrid planes are being tested and could become a popular option for more sustainable flying.
Sustainable Aviation Fluid (SAF)
There has been a lot of talk about this sustainable flying alternative as of late. SAF is a biofuel made from organic waste and residues. Although it still emits carbon, as its inputs store carbon, it has been found to cut carbon emissions by up to 80 per cent. You also do not need to make changes to the planes themselves in order to use SAF, it works with the current engines.
The main issue with SAF, its cost. It can be three to five times the cost of traditional fossil-based fuel and few airports carry it regularly. In 2019, only one per cent of the 363 billion litres of aviation fluid used was SAF. Until there are regulations in place it is unlikely that companies will make the expensive switch.
Luckily, there are some countries and companies putting pressure on the sustainable switch. Bombardier, a leading manufacturer of planes, is pushing for SAF to become the industry’s standard fluid by incorporating it into their demonstration flights and offering it to customers as a fuel choice out of their delivery centre in Montreal.
In the United States, there is talk of introducing a tax credit for using SAF, and next year in France all flights leaving the country must use at least one per cent SAF. The European Union hopes to increase this to two per cent by 2025 and five per cent by 2030.
The good thing about SAF is that it can be blended with fossil fuels. While the carbon savings will not be as high as they could be, it’s a step in the right direction. In fact, a few weeks ago a flight from France to Montreal used 16 per cent SAF.
What Does This Mean for the Future?
It definitely sounds promising to hear of the possibility of sustainable flying! Still, it looks as though it will take us a while to get there.
In the meantime, we can do our best to try and keep our carbon footprint down. If fully cutting out flying doesn’t work for you, try thinking through each flight before you book it.
Is it necessary? Could you get there using a different method of transportation, one that is less carbon intensive? Are you taking the most direct route that you can afford? Are there other areas in your life that you can make changes to in order to lower your carbon footprint? Could carbon offsets help (even if they do not fully account for the impact)?
Simply being aware of your environmental impact is a great start! Pushing for change towards a society that has moved on beyond fossil fuels would be even better.😉