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How sustainable is the aviation industry?

­The aviation industry is responsible for 5% of all the global greenhouse gas emissions. While this may not seem like a major issue, the problem with the industry is emission reductions. The industry, pre-COVID, was predicted to double by 2037 which also presents a challenge. Currently, it is very hard in the aviation industry to reduce emissions without taking significant financial losses. But reducing these emissions is very crucial in order to meet the Paris Agreement targets.

Figure 1 Comparison of per capita emissions between flying, eating meat, driving a car and not using plastic.

Individually as well, taking a flight can incredibly increase your per capita emissions. For example, Figure 1 shows how one return flight from London to Bangkok can have 3.24 tonnes of CO2 emissions which is more than the contribution from consuming meat or even driving a car for a year. That one flight alone can account for more than an individual’s annual sustainable footprint. Taking the same flight business class would have approximately three times more emissions than flying economy. Since business class takes up more space, each person accounts for a greater proportion of the plane’s emissions.

Emission Targets:

In recent decades, many carbon reductions targets have been set by the industry. The International Air Transport Association (IATA), a trade association of 290 airlines around the world, including British Airways, Cathay Pacific and Emirates, plans to reduce emissions by 50% by 2050 relative to 2005. Their targets include a commitment to have “carbon-neutral growth” post-2020. IATA has also implemented a global initiative called the Carbon Offsetting Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA). Although CORSIA is currently voluntary, airlines will have to pay to offset any CO2 emissions that exceed 2020 levels after 2027. easyJet currently operates “net-zero carbon” flights through the CORSIA.

There are several ways the industry and governments have tried to reduce aviation-related emissions over the years similar to IATA’s efforts. These include electric planes, eco-tax, sustainable aviation fuel and consumer actions.

Electric Planes:

Figure 2 The world’s first all-electric powered seaplane by Harbour Air and magniX.

On 10th December 2019, the world’s first all-electric powered seaplane took flight in Vancouver, Canada. The six-passenger DHC-2 de Havilland Beaver with a 750-horsepower (560 kW) magni500 propulsion system was developed by Harbour Air and magniX. Their remarkable achievement has made the aviation industry imagine a world where electric planes are not only possible but a viable solution to reduce emissions. Harbour Air put forward targets to electrify its entire fleet by 2022 setting out an example for the industry.  Other similar targets include easyJet trying to run electric planes on routes under 500km by 2030, and Norway aiming to make all short-haul flights electric by 2040.

The main issue with electric flights, apart from it being a nascent technology, is that they are not practical for long-haul flights. Due to the weight of the batteries and its low energy intensity, they are not a viable option for longer flights. In comparison to the best lithium-ion battery on the market, jet fuel contains 30 times more energy per kilogram. About 80% of the industry’s emissions come from flights over 1500km which suggests that electric aviation is decades away from having a significant emission reduction in the industry.  

Eco-tax and carbon offsetting:

There have always been critics of putting carbon taxes of products. In the aviation industry as well, there has been confusion over the effectiveness of adding climate taxes to the cost of airline tickets. It allows rich people to get away with high emissions while the middle-income group suffers the most. Nonetheless, France launched its eco-tax in 2020 and countries such as Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands are planning on putting similar policies.

Another such controversial solution to emission reduction is carbon offsetting. Carbon offsetting refers to the process where industries compensate their CO2 emissions by making equivalent CO2 saving elsewhere. For example, these activities include building wind farms that replace coal-fired power plants, energy efficiency improvements and tree plantation projects. Critics have called schemes such as CORSIA a “licence to pollute” due to the inaccuracies in measuring emissions properly. As the CEO of Responsible Travel, Justin Francis, reports, “When we put carbon into the atmosphere it stays there for decades, hundreds, sometimes thousands of years – we can’t cancel that out with carbon offsetting. It’s a distraction from the real need, which is to reduce the amount of carbon we put into the atmosphere in the first place“.

Sustainable aviation fuel:

Among the previously mentioned methods of reducing emissions, sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) is the most promising and viable. SAF can be made from various raw materials such as crops, vegetable oils, wood chips or household waste. As these products are made by photosynthesis, they have already absorbed GHG emissions. Therefore, when they burn the produce around 80% less CO2 emissions than standard jet fuel. SAF can be mixed with jet fuels are used directly in today’s airplanes without needing to change the engines. But since it is a relatively new technology, it is expensive and contributes less than 1% of all jet fuel used globally.

Cooking Oil
In 2008, Virgin Atlantic airline used biofuel for the first time to power a plane. In May 2014, the Dutch airline, KLM, launched a series of transatlantic flights from Amsterdam to Aruba and Bonaire, where one of these flights was powered by a mixture of fossil fuels and sustainable biofuel. The mixture had 25% of recycled cooking oil as the SAF. A year before, in 2013, KLM tested some commercial flights with SAF made from the cooking oil wastes of Louisiana restaurants. Companies such as Grease Lighting collect cooking oil from local restaurants and convert them to biodiesel fuels. Previously, cooking oil waste has been used to power trucks and buses but powering a plane is a completely different achievement. In 2015, China completed its first commercial flight (from Hainan Airlines) using biofuel made from cooking oil.

Figure3 The steps and processes involved in the conversion of cooking oil to SAF.

British Petroleum has been transitioning to renewable energies and biofuels production from cooking oil has been a very crucial part for them. Figure 3 illustrates the processes involved. Firstly, the used cooking oil is collected by trucks and taken to a processing unit where the oil is cleaned, and the oxygen is removed from it. Later it is blended with standard aviation fuel as SAFs still cannot be used alone to power planes. However, it is still difficult to imagine how cooking oil would be able to provide enough fuel for the aviation industry. It is limited and hard to access and process

What can you do?

The aviation industry, as evident from above, is an extremely complex and difficult industry to reduce emissions. In such cases, the government and the industry rely on consumers to make certain behavioral changes to reduce overall emissions.

  • Firstly, consider taking other forms of transportation if they are possible. Reducing the demand for air travel will ultimately lead to large emission reductions.
  • If you do choose to fly, you can offset your emissions by donating to an accredited scheme such as Climate Care, Terrapass or Atmosfair.
  • Taking direct flights can have significantly less per capita emissions. Landing and takeoffs use up a lot of extra fuel.
  • Choosing a more sustainable airline such as KLM and All Nippon Airway sends a message across the industry about what consumers expect from the airlines. Certain routes also have biofuel driven airplanes such as the Amsterdam-Los Angeles route.
  • As mentioned above, flying business class can have more than 30 times the per capita emissions compared to flying economy.
  • Use your vote to elect candidates who care about the environment. This would indirectly lead to better policies and regulations.

The aviation industry has come a long way in the last few decades with the invention of new technologies such as electric planes and SAFs. To reach the emission targets a lot of work needs to be done by the industry, investors, governments and consumers. The aviation industry has been hit the most by the pandemic. But there have been some silver linings. For example, airlines have had to filter out their old airplanes which were less efficient and costly to store during the lockdown. The reduction in air travel has taken the industry closer to its targets and it is predicted that pre-COVID levels of air travel will not be achieved till 2023. This pause in the industry is allowing newer technologies to grow more rapidly.


Published by Pranshu Patel

I am an ambitious environmental science graduate who is passionate about climate change and decarbonisation. I enjoy researching and writing about sustainability and climate change.

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