Sustainable Aviation & CO2 Emissions

Anna Triponel
April 14, 2023
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As the plane lands, the feeling of joy of all the things you’ve seen, the people you’ve met, and the experiences you’ve had; coupled with the feeling of guilt that you’re responsible for a very large quantity of carbon dioxide that’s now in the air because of your choice to travel.

This joy/guilt feeling is one that I know a number of you feel as well. Mine is growing every time I take a plane: travel is my largest carbon footprint (you can find out what yours is here) and the one I grapple with the most. I just calculated that my return trip from Thailand was 833 kg CO2. (Calculator here for those of you who had just landed back also). ✈️

Why the guilt? We need to limit global warming to 1.5C by 2100, which means achieving net zero CO2 emissions by 2050. Planes rely on fuels that have high energy density. The IPCC found that, in 2019, direct GHG emissions from the transport sector accounted for 23% of global energy-related CO2 emissions, and 12% of direct transport emissions came from aviation. So planes emit a lot of CO2 - but also - non-CO2. This non-CO2 (nitrogen oxides, contrail clouds etc.) significantly increases the impact of flying as compared to CO2 alone (according to the European Commission here). Long story short, flying is one of the worst things you can do for the planet at an individual level.

How far are we from sustainable aviation? A very very long way. Electric batteries would be too heavy and large to enable them to power long flights. The hype over hydrogen - a clean fuel which produces only water! - is over. Too voluminous, and too flammable. So we’re left with low-carbon sustainable aviation fuels to replace high polluting hydrocarbons. The most promising are advanced waste biofuels made from things like used cooking oils. To find out more, check out the House of Commons Transport Committee’s ‘Fuelling the Future’ report which conveniently has just been released. It basically says that the UK government needs to do a whole lot more to incentivize the development of sustainable aviation fuels.

What’s the alternative? The future of travel by 2050 is so well described in The Future We Choose - a book I recommend to everyone I meet and that was our Xmas present to every Human Level team member. It paints a picture of slow travel, where we savour our travel more, we travel for longer, in a way that is more connected with people and the planet, in a more meaningful way. We can still visit the world, but differently. For now, we can all take steps, for instance: prioritise train over plane wherever possible; prioritise local trips; be mindful about when we chose to take a plane; and offset travel emissions. 🌎

Some good news: Have any of you seen Etihad’s ads: “Flying shouldn’t cost the Earth” and “net zero emissions by 2050”? Well now you won’t because they have just been banned. The world is starting to crack down on airline companies that suggest that we have cracked it - because we haven’t. Worse: Etihad was actually planning on increasing its absolute CO2 emissions. Thanks to the Australian and UK consumer watchdogs for stepping in here - greenwashing is under increasing scrutiny. Also, do you remember the concept of the carbon shadow? You could be a Joe cycling your bike to work every day, and a Janet taking the plane. Joe has a much lower carbon footprint. But Joe works in exploration and production of fossil fuels, and Janet works on regenerative agriculture. Suddenly, Joe’s impact on the world is much worse than Janet’s.

That’s it for this week - if you want to be the first to know about our two-part mini videos on human rights next week, follow our Youtube channel! 🌟

Have a lovely weekend,