Before the teenage activist Greta Thunberg made headlines with her scathing speech at this year’s United Nations Climate Action Summit, she crossed the Atlantic Ocean by sailboat and entered New York Harbor in lower Manhattan.
“I have, since a few years, stopped flying because of the enormous impact aviation has on the climate,” she explained to Trevor Noah on “The Daily Show.”
The aviation industry accounts for two percent of worldwide CO2 emissions, and air travel is expected to more than triple in the next three decades, according to the UN. Now a newer study shows an increase in air traffic at a much faster rate than the UN predicted.
World travelers are becoming more conscious of their carbon footprints, giving rise to flight shaming. “How Guilty Should You Feel About Flying?,” The New York Times asked recently. (Very, if you’re among the 12 percent who are the world’s most frequent fliers.)
The aviation industry has much work to do if it wants to slash emissions to “net zero” by 2050, the goal set forth in the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation, or Corsia, by the International Civil Aviation Organization — the UN body overseeing global aviation. Corsia has 190 signatory countries.
This year, it will begin reporting its emissions data so baseline goals can be set up for each country. To reach the ultimate goal, companies will have to invest in verified carbon reduction programs like reforestation and solar energy, sustainable aviation biofuels and new technologies like electric planes.
At a Climate Action Summit panel session on aviation and at a NYC Climate Week event hosted by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and United Airlines in September, industry representatives lobbied for more global investments and government support — specifically to help airlines scale up biofuel production to meet net-zero ambitions.
Pressure on governments to step up
Different countries are taking different approaches toward the goal of reduced airline emissions. France and Germany are imposing taxes to discourage air travel — a controversial strategy not only because taxes are inherently unpopular but also because it assumes there are alternatives, like high-speed regional trains or buses.
The airlines naturally dislike taxes and argue that they cut into revenue that could be used for research and development. Echoing executives at KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and SpiceJet (in India), Kate McMillan, the manager of government and airport affairs at JetBlue Airlines, says that more taxes can detract from opportunities to invest in the sustainable innovations that the industry needs.
Aaron Robinson, the senior manager of environmental strategy and sustainability at United Airlines, goes further, asserting that governments should invest in improved air traffic control — planes stuck on tarmacs or circling in the air contribute to excess emissions.
When PassBlue asked youths in last month’s New York City Climate Strike March, below, what they thought about taxing air travel, most said they didn’t think it would make a dent in air travel, since people who can afford to fly can afford to pay more. Others conceded that, sustainability aside, sometimes the best option is to fly.
The European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme allows companies to buy or trade emission allowances above a certain threshold. Kreiken, of KLM, says the income from such cap-and-trade systems could go toward research into aviation science, like aircraft weight reductions and new-fuel production.
People need to think creatively about how to invest the money yielded by such schemes, says Suzanne Hunt, the president of HuntGreen, a sustainability advisory firm that works in the transportation sector. “United has 93,000 employees. Can you use the offset money to help them get solar panels on their roofs and buy them electric cars?,” she said on a NYC Greener Aviation panel in September. “Or can we put the money toward helping farmers in the locations where you fly from to help them offset their own emissions?”
And now, a message to our customers
While awaiting government help, the industry is investing in public relations. During the NYC Climate Week panel discussion last month, United Airlines said it wanted to raise customer awareness about the value of pricier biofuels — which is not obvious to a passenger.
KLM and Lufthansa both offer passengers a chance to offset their carbon footprints by donating to climate-protection projects. And KLM launched a surprising campaign this summer encouraging travelers to choose environmentally friendly ways to get there — in Europe, by train, for example — even if it meant not flying at all.
These efforts align with the UN Sustainable Travel guidelines, which encourage UN employees — already restricted to “essential” trips only — to travel less, hold meetings by teleconference, drop down from business class on long flights (cheaper seats mean fewer per capita carbon emissions) and choose ground transportation when it does not take more time.
Gambling on biofuels
Biofuels, aka “sustainable” or “synthetic” fuels like corn-based ethanol, can be produced from crops, waste and other renewable sources and go a long way toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But synthetic fuel costs about three times more than regular kerosene-based jet fuel, which helps explain why fewer than one percent of global flights are running on biofuels today.
Katherine Dixon, the vice president for strategy and carbon architecture at Royal Dutch Shell, says biofuels cost too much for her company to make the investment, though that could change as technology improves, the market grows and biofuels become more competitive.
Robinson, at United Airlines, which buys about a million gallons of biofuels a year, points out that partnering with new biofuel companies — typically start-ups — involves risks, and aviation is a risk-averse industry. His company works with two suppliers, World Energy and Fulcrum, after earlier trials with four others that have since pivoted to more lucrative biomass-based products like health supplements and cosmetics.
The biofuels industry has other problems. Stephanie Batchelor, a vice president at the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, a trade association, recalled that just 10 years ago, biofuels generated buzz in the United States. But since then, the debate over biofuel subsidies has become highly politicized, and public and private financing have dried up.
The Environmental Protection Agency sets renewable fuels standards that mandate a percentage of biofuels use by the transportation industry, but Batchelor says the standards have been rolled back — another reason biofuel start-ups are moving in other directions.
Batchelor acknowledges that tax credits for biofuel use can be successful at the state level. She points to California, where tax credits helped boost biofuels companies. But for prices to drop, international airlines will need more biofuel producers to come online.
Michael Gill, the executive director of the Air Transport Action Group, which represents the aircraft and airport industries, says governments need to invest more effort and political capital in research and development that can further incentivize biofuels production.
What about electric power?
Decarbonization and emissions reductions could also be achieved by switching to “hybrid propulsion” or some use of electricity, says Jean-Brice Dumont, the executive vice president of engineering at Airbus, adding, “We do believe we’ll see a 100-seat regional hybrid-electric city hopper in the 2030s.”
United Airlines and KLM are also eyeing electric airplane technology. Susan Ying, a global tech executive at Ampaire, a start-up that makes all-electric commercial aircraft, predicts the market will shift to electric in the next decade.
The UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization says it has “seen unprecedented development of electric and hybrid aircrafts.” It also says that some small electric aircraft have been tested and it is preparing to certify them, but it’s unclear whether the new aircraft could fly in the US without a go-ahead from the Federal Aviation Administration. It has yet to approve even two-passenger electric planes.
With a goal of net zero emissions in just 30 years, the aviation industry will surely need more than a couple pathways. As for which ones might open up, that could depend on public-private partnerships and long-term investments that have yet to be hammered out.
Fortunately, the airline industry has self-interest as well as the environment to consider. “Continuously improving the impact of aviation on the environment is not only vital in retaining public confidence, which is heavily eroded in our activities,” Dumont, of Airbus, says, “it is the only way to secure the future of our industry.”
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Sonah Lee-Lassiter is a Korean-American freelance writer based in Brooklyn, who grew up across many US states. In her contributions to PassBlue, she has covered a wide range of topics, including Afghanistan’s migrant crisis, digital harassment at the UN and how the airline industry affects climate change. She has a degree in international management fromt the University of Vermont and a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and works in the civil service as well.