To Fly or not to Fly? The “Greening” of the Airlines

Despite this summer’s soft demand for air travel and record-breaking gas prices in the U.S., the aviation industry projects a doubling in revenue over the next ten years. But many wonder just how the industry will mitigate its ever-expanding carbon budget?
Nearly 1.6 billion travelers are expected by 2020 (up from 2007’s 903 million) as new travelers from emerging economies take to the skies for holiday and business travel. While this is great news for the $6 trillion travel sector, it is also of great concern for those who care about what spews out the back of thousands upon thousands of daily airborne 747s in the stratosphere transporting travelers.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, aviation generates about 3 percent of CO2 emissions. Climate experts calculate that adding the greenhouse effects of nitrous oxide (NO2) emissions from planes, and the water vapor they emit at or near the stratospheric levels where planes fly, triples this to about 9 percent.

At a recent summit on “sustainable aviation” at the famed Farnborough International Airshow in France, airlines and plane makers pledged to make and use more fuel-efficient planes. However, they also aggressively attacked the European Union’s recent decision to include aviation in its Emission Trading Scheme, a key tool to fight climate change.

The European Union is currently the biggest contributor to global travel and tourism, with 27.5% of the share of the world market and more than 10% of the industry’s total workforce.
The airline industry argues that the EU’s carbon trading scheme is ‘discriminatory’ and will dampen their investments in fuel-efficiency technology and alternative fuels. Moreover, the European Low Fares Airline Association claim their low-cost airlines are already a “green” alternative compared with conventional airlines, because low-cost airlines tend to have newer, more efficient fleets and their flights run nearly full, creating lower average emissions per passenger.

Jeff Gazzard, of the Aviation Environment Federation said that as long as air traffic is set to double by 2020, the issue of mandated or voluntary fuel efficiency is irrelevant because any improvements in plane or fuel technology will be outpaced by growth in the sector, which expands by 3-4% per year.
On the flip side, Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Airlines, promises his company will green the entire airline industry within 10 years. Virgin Atlantic has already begun biofuel road-testing, with its first test flight across the English Channel using coconut oil earlier this year, as part of the Clinton Climate Initiative.
Environmentalists, however, argue that crop-based biofuel will only drive up food costs, deplete arable land and contribute to deforestation. Although Branson claims commercial fuel will almost certainly be derived from algae – a much more sustainable source than land crops – commercial algal fuel is either a long shot or a long-term R&D goal.
While very few of us are going to wait around for algae to come to fruition before we hop on a plane, its hard not to wander if sustainable/ -eco travel may be attainable in the future?
Certainly there are solutions that include simply flying less, consolidating trips, traveling by train, and opting for green, eco-friendly accommodations. We can also opt to buy carbon-offsets and write off our green guilt by buying into a project elsewhere that will compensate for the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) resulting from our travels.
Unfortunately, very few travelers actually choose to green their flights with offsets considering the price of an offset can vary by a factor of five, depending on which carbon footprint calculator a company uses

Opponents like Gazzard claim carbon offsets for airlines are “like paying someone else to give up smoking!”

On less ambiguous grounds, a report last month by the Global e-Sustainability Initiative, a group of technology companies, and the Climate Group estimated that up to 20 percent of present business travel worldwide could be easily replaced by web-based and conventional videoconferencing technology.
Communications equipment supplier Nortel, who recently signed on business consultancy megalith, Deloitte, in managing their videoconferencing, claims their telepresence technology can save a company spending $23 million annually on travel, 385,000 hours of lost productivity, reduce its carbon footprint by up to 4,200 tonnes and save up to $7 million a year.
Despite the fact that flying may be the center of all contradiction in eco travel, many argue that conscious traveling and eco-demand will undoubtedly continue to inspire innovation and drive sustainable change in the travel industry. At the end of the day, preventing climate change directly translates to maintaining long-term aviation business security.
For those awaiting algae planes to make their debut, stay tuned for more eco-travel coverage.

Alison Loomis is a geographer, climate activist, and social entrepreneur.
Photo: Joshua Davis

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