If the aviation industry were a country, it would be in the world’s top 10 carbon polluters – in 2018, 4.3 billion passengers took flights, a new record, but more of us are questioning the impact flying is having on the planet. So, what can you do to reduce your carbon footprint and make the right travel choices? And, with a million people traveling in 10,000 aircraft, 24 hours a day, every day, is the aviation industry doing its bit to help?
As the urgency of climate change intensifies and more of us are looking at different ways we can help the environment, air travel is just one of a number of areas that are under focus. The advent of the no-fly movement, popularized by teenage activist Greta Thunberg, has also put air travel under the spotlight. Although the International Air Transport Association (IATA) claims that planes are the source of only 2 percent of human-made carbon dioxide emissions, others claim the figure is much higher.
Most airlines have been fairly responsive, introducing carbon offset schemes, while others have pledged to go plastic-free. IATA, which represents airlines, said the CO2 emission of a standard flight was half the amount it was in 1990, thanks to fuel-efficient planes. While some have touted sustainable fuel as the answer, it may be too expensive to make it a feasible solution, although the IATA expects 2 percent of airline fuel to come from sustainable sources by 2025. Of course, this is overshadowed by the fact the IATA expects the airline industry to grow by 4 to 5 percent by the same year, dwarfing any green gains.
Alternative Airlines, an airline booking company, says the most eco-friendly airlines are the ones upgrading to a more environmentally friendly fleet; using more eco-friendly materials onboard (for example, using carbon fiber seats, reducing plastic and in-flight magazines), and serving vegan and vegetarian meals. Some of the carriers Alternative Airlines praises include Virgin Air, Qantas and KLM. One major difference between the airlines is fuel efficiency: the International Council on Clean Transportation found a 51 percent difference between the most fuel-efficient trans-Atlantic airline (Norwegian Air) and the least efficient (British Airways).
Many airlines offer passengers the chance of purchasing ‘carbon offsets’, which allows them to reduce the impact of their pollution by paying someone else not to. Doing so sends a clear message to airlines that you care about the impact air travel has on the planet.
Not everyone agrees that carbon offsetting is the answer, however. Friends of the Earth director Tony Juniper has said that carbon offset schemes are “a smokescreen used to avoid real measures to avoid action and carry on polluting. [They should] be a measure of last resort, after steps have been taken to cut emissions.”
It’s also important to know exactly what the ‘offset’ you are purchasing will be. Different carbon offset schemes fund different projects – from reforestation to renewable energy – and it’s hard to know how effective many of them are. “A plane that flies today emits carbon today," says Roger Tyres, a research fellow at the University of Southampton, who studies carbon offsetting. “It’s very hard to know how fast an offset can remove that amount of carbon from the atmosphere."
Just 10 percent of passengers opt to offset their flights anyway, according to Qantas, but airlines are focusing on offsetting their own greenhouse gas emissions with more sustainable and efficient aviation fuels. The Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation, adopted by more than 80 percent of the industry in 2016, requires that airlines offset all international flights by 2021.
It’s unlikely. For a start, the no-fly movement is a very European phenomenon, a continent blessed with easy rail access and free movement across borders. For an American or Australian traveler, the reality is more complicated, unless they want to just travel in their home countries. It’s also important to understand the positive effects the ‘jet age’ has had on the world: from bringing prosperity to far-flung corners of the planet to broadening minds and encouraging multi-culturalism, mass travel has been, on balance, a very good thing.
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