Air transport emissions is definitely one of the hottest conversation topics over the past year. After the intergovernmental panel on climate change, IPCC, published their report, concern over climate change has for many people transformed into anxiety over climate change and certainly for a good reason.
In this article, I will focus exclusively on the future of flying, because I feel like it has been left out of the public discussion.
To write this post, I have taken part in the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) climate seminar, become familiar with the aircraft manufacturer’s outlooks, aviation law and regulations, different options for compensating for emissions, and I have used various sources to clarify the potential effects of aviation taxes.
My background is that I graduated as a Bachelor of Hospitality Management in the travel industry from Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences, studied Aviation and Airport Management at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University and have years of experience working in airport operations.
At this point, I would like to say that the purpose of this post is definitely not to defend my own choices as a consumer, but to discuss the topic from the perspective of the future of commercial aviation. Instead of constant anxiety, boycotts, and yes-no arguments, I want to focus on the future and the progress that is happening in this field.
Looking into the future – is flying coming to an end?
I asked you on Instagram, what are the things you wonder about when thinking about air transport emissions and I received some questions pondering the end of flying and when do I think it’s going to happen. Flying is certainly not going to end, but to continue growing enormously. Despite the growth, the mission is to half the carbon emissions by the year 2050 compared to the level they were at in 2005. For example, air transport between Asia and Africa alone grew over 200% in 2018. You can read more about the growth of international air traffic in Africa here.
The enormous global growth in air traffic makes me question movements that pressure people to boycott flying, which are currently especially trendy in Sweden. Many social media influencers are traveling across continents on board cargo ships like martyrs, often causing more emissions than they would by flying. There is even a new word in Swedish, flygskam, which means the feeling of guilt created by the flights you take.
Don’t get me wrong, you should question your own consumer habits and think about more eco-friendly options in all aspects. It’s clear that flying creates carbon emissions and even if these emissions make up only a small part at the level of the society as a whole, air travel can be the most significant single contributor in an individual’s personal carbon footprint.
The real change, however, happens somewhere else than in the world of noble thoughts about boycotts.
In large part of the conversation, the continuous development of commercial aviation as a field has been forgotten together with the effect of new aircraft with radically lower carbon emissions, climate legislation, and aviation infrastructure.
Boycotts and stopping flying altogether are of course one solution and every person makes their own choices and decisions in order to save the world, but I believe that change can also be achieved through choosing an airline that invests in the future by acquiring the newest fleet of aircrafts and that offers as direct routes as possible to your destination.
In large part of the conversation the continuous development of aviation as a field has been forgotten together with the effect of new aircrafts with radically lower carbon emissions, climate legislation and aviation infrastructure.
Cargo forms a large part of air traffic
Most of the daily consumables we buy are transported by air, whether it is phones, clothes or even food and flowers. Most of the passenger traffic is combined with transporting cargo, which is often a significant source of income for airlines. For example, medicines are flown to Asia through Brussels onboard Finnair flights regularly. Due to problems with counterfeit medication created by Chinese online stores, pharmaceuticals are currently imported from Europe.
Every one of us wants our Zalando packages, and new Macbooks carried to our door tomorrow the latest and this is exactly why the amount of air cargo will only grow in the coming years. The difference between emissions from air freight and passenger traffic is difficult to estimate at the moment because there isn’t much on clear research data on freight traffic emissions.
Case: A350 – developing flight technology reduces emissions
Fuel is the largest cost for the airlines, so progress towards lower emissions in air travel is in the financial interest of every airline.
As an example, Finnair’s single most significant climate action in the last couple of years was the new A350 aircraft, which reduced carbon emissions to 1/4 and at the same time significantly lowered the company’s fuel costs. Fuel is the largest cost for an airline, so progress towards lower emissions in air travel is also in the financial interest of the industry. A350 is used on a large part of the long haul flights and replaces the old four motor A340.
The world’s largest aircraft manufacturers, Airbus and Boeing, are continuously developing aircraft with lower emissions for both climate and financial reasons. Airbus currently focuses on plans for electric flying, which will be a significant factor in the future, especially for domestic flights. If you are interested in electric flying, find out more about Airbus E-Fan 1.0 or the Airbus Zephyr HAPS aircraft.
According to Boeing, its 787 Dreamliner produces 20-30% lower carbon emissions and the infamous 737-8 MAX, which is currently grounded, is 18% lower in carbon emissions than previous models.
Aviation accounts globally for approximately 2% of carbon emissions. Boeing and Airbus together with other operators in the aviation industry have pledged to reduce carbon emissions at least 1.5% annually and make all growth in international flights after 2020 carbon neutral in accordance with the UN’s Corsia carbon offsetting scheme.
Is biofuel a solution for reducing carbon emissions?
Replacing kerosene-based aviation fuel with biofuel is one important step towards greener air travel, but it is not a simple solution to the problem. Blends of up to 50% bio jet fuel are acceptable for use, and the aim is to increase the limit to 80% of total fuel used. At the moment, only a very few airlines are making blends of over 5-10% bio jet fuel.
The greatest challenge among a few others on biofuel is its price. The costs must come down so that it can be better utilised, but they won’t unless the demand increases. Bio jet fuel is around 3-5 times more expensive than kerosene.
Another challenge is that the availability of biofuel is limited and continuous production for aviation takes place currently only in California. This means that for example for Finnair, biofuel is only a sensible option on the return legs of the routes from San Francisco and Los Angeles. Transporting biofuel as cargo would only create more emissions.
The availability of biofuel in Europe and in Finland is growing, and the aim is to develop it at a faster pace. In Sweden and Norway, there have been suggestions for enforcing the use of biofuel in aviation.
Despite the challenges, biofuel will be part of the solution when it comes to emissions caused by aviation.
Carbon emissions are not the only emissions that come from aviation, but there is not enough research nor do I have enough knowledge to discuss this topic, such as nitrogen dioxide, which actually has both positive and negative effects on climate depending on the route, time of day and year etc.
Single European Sky and aviation tax
In the US there’s a common airspace and even though the aircrafts are older, at the moment the common airspace makes flying more fuel efficient than it is in Europe.
Single European Sky is a new generation air traffic management system for Europe, which aims to offer an infrastructure for air traffic control, that ensures safe and environmentally friendly development of air traffic growth and operations. The initiative was established to help in de-fragmenting and coordinating the different management systems, technologies, and operations of member states.
If you have ever flown in Europe and wondered why the plane is not taking the direct route to your destination, it is because the European airspace is not yet that straightforward. Single European Sky is an initiative by the European Commission, which could significantly reduce the emissions from air travel. Planes fly on average 50 kilometres more because of the national regulations of different countries. This causes millions of tonnes of emissions annually. Regulations that de-fragment the airspace could lead to better optimisation and more direct routes and reduction in the flight time. In the US there’s a common airspace and even though the aircrafts are older, at the moment the common airspace makes flying more fuel efficient than it is in Europe.
Taxation of air travel has been a hot topic, and Sweden has abandoned the recently introduced aviation tax. Air transport and shipping don’t pay tax on fuel, because of the desire to free world trade and people-to-people exchanges after the second world war. Air transport is, however, the only industry that enables its own infrastructure completely and that’s why there is a high tax added to the price of your flight ticket.
Sweden gave up the flight tax within less than a year, but now bringing it back is being discussed again. In the worst case, a tax on flying enforced by one country alone means international passengers and airlines are diverted to other airports, and that eats into jobs and finances. According to the Director General of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), Alexandre de Juniac, measures that really move things forward must be taken at the international level and definitely not on a country-by-country basis. In Finland Minister of Transport, Anne Berner (Centre Party), has turned down the idea of introducing an aviation tax at the national level. Another challenge for taxation of air travel is that the taxes are not necessarily going to affect carbon emissions in any way directly.
Air traffic has often been condemned for not being part of the Paris agreement, but the industry has its own commitments, which come with even stricter requirements. According to the UN’s Corsia carbon offsetting and reduction scheme, the growth in carbon emissions of air travel must be offset from the year 2020 onwards. If the required reductions are not met by 2020, the airline will have to buy even more offsets from eligible programmes.
In the worst case, a tax on flying enforced by one country alone means international passengers and airlines are diverted to other airports, and that eats into jobs and finances.
The effects of operations on emissions from air travel
Operations in air and on the ground play a significant role in reducing emissions. Airline pilots should be provided with “green piloting training”, that allows them to take advantage of the direction of the wind to reduce fuel consumption during the whole flight. The skies in Europe, for example, are currently so congested, that optimising the flying altitude to save fuel is challenging.
The weight of a plane also affects the amount of fuel needed directly. In addition to the airframe, an aircraft’s weight is determined by the number of passengers and weight of hold baggage, other cargo and every consumable related to the services on board from the seats to the spoon for your coffee. If you have ever flown in business class on a Finnair plane for example, you might have noticed that the cups have the text Marimekko for Finnair, because the cups are 15% lighter than the usual Marimekko cups in order to save fuel. Many people question the use of plastics in for example cutlery, but after having a discussion about this with Kati Ihamäki, the Vice President in Sustainable Development at Finnair, I understood that even the problem with plastic is not that straightforward; if a recyclable plastic cup is lighter than one made out of carton, it is in the end the more ecological choice.
As a passenger, you can affect the fuel consumption by packing a light bag that goes into the hold since it is the only thing the passenger brings onboard which actually is weighed – the hand luggage and the person’s weight are calculated based of averages and estimates. Did you know that if every passenger would pack one kilo less in their luggage, 1.2 million kilos of aviation fuel would be saved annually? This is enough for 20 flights between Helsinki and Tokyo.
Our Helsinki Airport is more emission efficient than airports on average. Three runways guarantee that landings can be optimised without unnecessary circling and waiting patterns while the plane waits for its turn to land, which are familiar to many from Heathrow or Charles de Gaulle for example. The airport uses a continuous descent approach, where the plane can descend smoothly at a constant angle opposed to a “step down” approach which requires the aircraft to increase engine power to level off at multiple altitudes.
As a passenger, you can also affect other operations in addition to how much your bag weighs by choosing a sensible route. A good rule of thumb is to take as direct flights as possible, but with the exception are ultra-long flights, where the plane needs even more fuel due to the weight of the fuel it needs to carry to complete the long journey. Ultra-long flights are generally speaking flights that last for more than 10 hours. On short flights, stop-overs increase fuel consumption because take-offs use fairly large amounts of fuel.
Are carbon offsets just shopping for a good conscience?
More and more air passengers want to buy carbon offsets for their flights, and I too have pledged to pay for offsets and buy biofuel for all my upcoming flights from the start of this year.
Compensating for emissions does of course not remove the emissions caused by the flights, but as a whole, they balance the total carbon emissions in a significant way. There are many ways to compensate for carbon emissions, but as a Finnish traveller, I have committed to using Finnair’s new Push for change initiative. Through Finnair’s Push for change, I can buy offsets for my flights and buy biofuel for between 6-65 euro, no matter which airline I fly with.
Finnair’s carbon emission offsets go directly into a project they have chosen in Mozambique. The airline pays the management costs for the Push for Change emission offset project, and this ensures all the money you pay goes directly into the project. The project aids installation of efficient stoves, which reduces the need to cut down local forests for burning and therefore helps preserve natural carbon sinks. In addition, the project has positive social effects on the life of women and girls. The Nordic Environment Financial Corporation (NEFCO), a financial institution which funds nordic environmental and climate projects formed by Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland, runs the project.
There are plenty of other options for offsetting the carbon emissions of your flights, and many recommend UN’s Climate Neutral Now. UN’s compensation initiative is certified and transparent. The money spent on compensating for emissions is used to buy emission offsets from projects that reduce carbon emissions through renewable energy, mainly in developing countries.
Many consumers are asking why carbon emission offsets are left for the passenger to worry about. In reality, aviation is the only form of transport that has been part of the EU’s emissions trading system and has been part of it from the year 2012. All airlines pay millions of euros for their emissions annually – so carbon emission offsets are just one option for the consumer to take part in the work on reducing emissions.
Aviation creates jobs both locally and in developing countries
Many defend air travel because of the jobs it creates both directly in aviation and related fields as well as through international tourism, and this is justified. It’s not grounds to claim that air travel is only positive, but the jobs and opportunities for financial growth in developing countries aviation creates are significant. Many of us know Thailand and Bali, which live from tourism and it is the primary source of income for millions of people. Globally approximately 57% of international tourists travel by air, and over 10% of the GDP in the world comes from tourism.
Air traffic, at its best, plays a significant role in the economic growth of many destinations. Through sustainable travel, tourism can bring more funds for protecting the environment and offers new work opportunities to the local population. Read more about the subject here.
Instead of focusing on boycotting air travel, I think the most sensible thing is to focus on reducing the emissions of air travel using the means I have mentioned above and of course by reducing our own unnecessary flights when the journey to the destination can just as easily be made for example by train. I promise to choose the train for domestic travel and in Europe, whenever possible. Aviation is constantly developing towards lower emissions, but the rate at which the traffic grows is so high that the changes must be even faster so that the emissions caused by flying can be controlled.2