Aviation has been one of the greatest inventions of our time. Yet, while it has enabled exploration, cultural connection and economic prosperity, it has also become one of our greatest polluters. Flying is a double edged sword that gets a bad rap because, simply put, it is very bad for the climate.
According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), the airline industry is responsible for nearly 3 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, so yes, we have proof that flying is bad for the climate. There’s no doubt that the industry, jet fuel in particular, needs a major transformation before we can travel completely guilt-free.
Until we decarbonize aviation, ground transportation is always going to be a better choice for the climate. But for the places we can’t take a train to yet (Australia anyone?), here are six ways to minimize your impact and fly better.
Sustainable Aviation Fuels
If global aviation were a country , it would be among the top 10 emitters of carbon. Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF), or biofuels are a promising solution. Made out of biomass, like agricultural waste or used cooking oils, SAF has the potential to deliver the performance of petroleum-based jet fuel, with just a fraction of its carbon footprint.
Experts say 1 billion dry tons of biomass can be collected sustainably each year in the United States, enough to produce 50-60 billion gallons of SAF. Beyond reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the growing, sourcing and production of SAF also creates new opportunities and increases revenue for farmers.
In theory, SAF can cut flight emissions by around 80%, depending on how it is made, according to WEF. The major hindrance, however, is cost due to lack of infrastructure and production. Once there is an increase in production facilities, the price should come down, making SAF a very viable option to help decarbonize aviation.
Until then, try to fly with the airlines that are prioritizing SAF. Airlines like Alaska, Wizz Air, Canada, SAS, British Airways, Lufthansa, Japan Airlines, Qatar Airways and United are already procuring and/or using it and United aims to go 100% green by 2050.
One way you can have complete control over your emissions is by choosing your route carefully. According to the Consumer Energy Alliance, about 23% of fuel per flight is used during takeoff and landing. That means the fewer amount of times you need to takeoff and land, the better.
When possible, you should always look for and book nonstop routes. They might cost a little bit more than a flight with one or two stops, but at the end of the day, the time and effort you save will make it worth it. More importantly, it’s much better for the environment.
Economy or Bust
This is a tough one for travelers with deep pockets (or an abundance of miles). Fly in economy, not business or first class. Although business class (and above) is quite the luxury, especially on a long haul flight, the carbon footprint compared to one in economy can be two to four times larger. A World Bank report estimates it can even be up to 9 times higher! It may feel unethical to fly, but if you must, you always have the opportunity to choose where you sit.
Sustainable is the new luxury, if you want future generations to have a planet, that is.
Reusing, recycling and repurposing are usually the way to go. Except when it comes to flying. Newer planes tend to be more energy efficient. According to the International Air Transport Association, each new generation of a plane has reduced emissions by around 15-20%.
The overall fuel efficiency of the fleet is around 80% better than 50 years ago. Over time, the incremental improvements have come from more efficient engines, better aerodynamics and reduced weight. Another aspect to keep in mind is that average sized planes get the best mileage (just in case you were contemplating a private jet for your next trip).
This seems like a silly one, so simple, right? We know there are situations where we need to get on a plane, but take the amount of flights you need under consideration. Do you absolutely need to fly to a conference or business meeting, or can you participate online? If there is anything Covid taught us about work and travel, it’s that anything can be done remotely if necessary. There’s no greater irony than flying to a climate conference to hear about how flying is bad for the climate.
When planning a vacation, opt for one long one, with fewer locations, rather than several smaller vacations over the course of the year. Weekend getaways? Look for destinations within driving distance or somewhere that’s easy to reach with public transportation.
Perhaps the simplest suggestion on our list: pack lightly. Weight increases the amount of carbon emitted on a flight, so the lighter the luggage, the less emissions. We’re always fans of carry-on packing for ease, simplicity and the security of always having your bag with you. Thinking of the connection between your luggage and your environmental footprint makes it a lot easier to leave the extra pair of shoes behind.
So yes, while flying is bad for the climate, the reality is that we still need to do it. So until the industry is carbon neutral (or negative), these are easy choices you can make to do your part.
MICHELLE ARELLANO MARTIN