By Alex Macheras
It’s all anyone wants to talk to me about. With countries declaring ‘climate emergency’ status, and climate-change activists like Greta Thunberg encouraging the world to give up flying, aviation is under fire like never before.
While it’s important that we keep perspective, given that air transport accounts for just 2% of global man-made CO2 emissions, this figure is likely to grow as the worldwide population continue to fly more each year. The 2% might not seem substantial enough to warrant any real change, but it’s at this point we need to recognise that our carbon footprint per person can exceed after just a few flights. One return flight from London to Sydney emits about 5 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) — which is already half of the average person’s annual carbon footprint.
Given how immersed in the aviation industry (I fly on average 3 times per week for work) I recognise that my carbon footprint is likely to be significantly higher than the average person. At the same time, I also recognise that, like for millions of people, my flying is — more often than not — 100% necessary. Air travel is an essential tool in our global, connected world. Today, 120,000 flights will take off, carrying 12mn passengers, and $18bn worth of trade — flying literally helps the ‘world go round’. Aviation provides the only rapid worldwide transportation network, is indispensable for tourism and facilitates world trade.
Many of the world’s poorest countries rely on tourism and have few other economic alternatives. In fact, much of the entire continent of Africa is without alternative infrastructure such as high-speed rail, and instead, several African nations are working to grow their respective commercial aviation industries in order to strengthen their economies.
The reality is, we’re a long way from being able to fly long-haul on electric jets that are emission free. Battery complications, weight constraints, and the lack of a technological solution that’s here today are slowing the process to carbon neutral flying. But we are still able to be part of a solution. We can still continue to fly but emit less.
One of the most effective ways in which we could fly more sustainably is by building an expectation of our airlines. In the heart of a ‘climate crisis’, we need to expect our airlines to be using the sustainable solutions available today — such as sustainable alternative fuels.
Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) consists of three key elements:
Sustainability in this context is defined as something that can be continually and repeatedly resourced in a manner consistent with economic, social and environmental aims, specifically something that conserves an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources and does not contribute to climate change.
It is alternative, in this case, non-conventional or advanced fuels, and includes any materials or substances that can be used as fuels, other than conventional, fossil-sources (such as oil, coal, and natural gas). It is also processed to jet fuel in an alternative manner. From cooking oil, plant oils, waste, waste gases, and agricultural residues.
Fuel means jet fuel that meets the technical and certification requirements for use in commercial aircraft. It’s essentially fuel for aircraft that has the potential to generate lower carbon emissions than conventional kerosene on a life-cycle basis.
SAF is made by blending conventional kerosene (fossil-based) with renewable hydrocarbon. They are certified as “Jet-A1” fuel and can be used without any technical modifications to aircraft — meaning airlines do not need to make any modifications to aircraft — it’s simply an alternative fuel that’s better for the well-being of our planet.
Global energy company, Shell Aviation is committed to working to accelerate the uptake in sustainable alternative fuels. Shell’s partnership with SkyNRG (Dutch sustainable aviation fuel supplier) has led to deals for the supply of sustainable aviation fuel to international airlines including KLM, SAS and Finnair at San Francisco Airport, for example.
The sustainable alternative fuels supplied by the likes of Shell Aviation produce up to 80% less CO2 over its lifecycle, compared to conventional jet fuel — but why are the airlines slow at adopting this alternative? The price of SAF fuel is still higher than convention fuel, and it’s widely because the demand for this type of fuel hasn’t driven the price down yet. But as consumers, we can help create a demand — a demand for our airlines to ensure we are flying in the most sustainable way possible.
A vital way in which we are able to change the way we fly today is through carbon offsetting. Crucially, offsetting is something we can be in control of ourselves, a reality of today when it comes to how we can continue to fly, but emit less. Carbon offsetting is used to compensate for the flight emissions an aircraft will release inflight. It doesn’t get rid of the carbon dioxide produced when you fly (meaning it’s not a sustainable solution), but what it does do is try and make up for your share of the CO2 by projects such as forestry scheme, which either stop existing trees being cut down or involves planting new ones. The trees act as a ‘biological sink’ by taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. With aviation set to continue to grow year-on-year, we need to be offsetting every single flight in order to ensure we are at least ‘cancelling out’ the carbon we emit when we fly.
Donating to a good offsetting scheme should be an essential when it comes to booking flight — as normal as paying to add luggage, or allocate a seat. With aviation being responsible for 2% of emissions, we as passengers possess the ability to be able to control, and further ensure that this percentage doesn’t rise significantly — all by taking advantage of carbon offsetting schemes already in place to ensure we can fly more sustainably.
Finally, choosing modern aircraft is a way in which we can emit less during air travel. Aircraft entering today’s fleet is over 80% more fuel-efficient than the first jet aircraft in the 1950s, consuming an average of 3.5 litres per passenger per 100km. In Europe, SWISS operates one of the world’s cleanest, most fuel-efficient short-haul fleets through the acquisition of their Airbus A220 aircraft. The A220 features a low drag nose and tailcone design, a smaller fuselage and optimised wing aerodynamics in order to deliver a 20% reduction in CO2 emissions per seat compared with other current models of smaller, single-aisle jets.
During the ‘cruise’ phase of a recent flight in the cockpit of a SWISS Airbus A220, the captain informed me that the aircraft was using the ‘least amount of fuel’ compared with any other aircraft in her flying career. Just one A220 will reduce airlines’ emissions by up to 6,000 tonnes per year — and so with SWISS having dozens of these jets deployed across its vast short-haul network, we should be able to meet the airline halfway through offsetting, or encouraging the use of sustainable alternative fuels.
* The author is an aviation analyst. Twitter handle: @AlexInAir
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