Can We Fly Sustainably

Making aviation sustainable is becoming ever more pressing as the total amount of air passengers and annual CO2 emissions from air travel continue to rise. Solving this issue is a priority if we are to meet the Paris Agreement objectives. Whilst airlines are looking into solutions, such as alternative fuels and offsetting their CO2 emissions, they also continue to engage in damaging practices that make our insatiable thirst for air travel all the more impactful.

Aviation’s CO2 footprint

Aviation is responsible for around 2–2.5% of global CO2 emissions. According to the European Commission: “Direct emissions from aviation account for about 3% of the EU’s total greenhouse gas emissions and more than 2% of global emissions.” To put that into perspective, if global aviation was a country, it would rank in the top 10 emitters.

Alternative fuels

One of the most popular solutions to aviation’s CO2 emissions is embodied in alternative fuels, including biofuels and synthetic fuels made with renewable power. However, to date, the barriers to entry for alternative fuels have been overwhelming and they require more intervention by policymakers so as to support technological developments and industrial scale. In particular, the issue of price competitiveness has been overwhelming.

Creating alternative fuels from renewables. Source: DW


On a more positive note, airlines have managed to increase the efficiency of aeroplanes significantly. An example is United Airlines, that has improved its fuel efficiency by 45% since 1990. However, a New York Times article highlights how, although airlines are becoming more efficient, the rate at which they are progressing is inferior to the rate of growth of demand for air travel, therefore effectively nullifying progress.

Carbon Offsetting

On the 19th of November, low budget airline EasyJet announced that it is set to become the first major airline to operate net-zero carbon flights, declaring that it would offset all of its emissions. The operation is set to cost the airline £25m in the next financial year, which will be dedicated to planting trees or avoiding the release of additional carbon dioxide.

Reduce flights

All the above measures can contribute to lowering the impact of aviation. However, even with their full implementation they fail to address the entire spectrum of aviation impacts and cannot avoid addressing the main solution to reducing CO2 emissions from air travel: less flights. Although all other approaches are useful, none have the power to achieve sustainable aviation if we continue to increase air travel exponentially.

Comparing CO2 emissions of planes vs trains in Europe. Source DW.

Euro-Mediterranean Center on #ClimateChange: integrated, multi-disciplinary and frontier research on climate science and policy.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store