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February 17, 2020

Carbon free by 2050 - Goal or Greenwash?

Much has been said and written recently about the need for airlines to reduce their carbon footprint.

Although moves to a lower emission or even claims of a carbon neutral industry in the future may be derided by environmentalists as pure greenwash, the signs are that the flying public are becoming open to paying the extra to reduce their footprint. That and to salve the ‘flight shame’ that is emerging as a label on passengers by elements of society.


Aviation is responsible for 2% of all global carbon emissions (CO2), and according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), approximately 4.5 billion passengers will board commercial flights this year, with that number almost doubling by 2037. Against that backdrop Sustainable Aviation, a coalition which includes most major airlines and airports as well as aerospace manufacturers, are committed to reach net zero by mid-century.


With a 70% increase in air travel forecast, there’s some radical changes needed if the environmental impact of the industry is to be mitigated by then.


As reported by Guardian aviation correspondent Gwyn Topham, currently there is an estimated 25.8 million tonnes of CO2 - out of 71.1 million tonnes set to be created annually by the UK sector - that will need to be addressed through what Sustainable Aviation calls ‘market-based measures’, or offsetting.

These offsetting measures don’t mean just planting millions of trees; their impact on the environment as a carbon sink will take 30 years to have any real effect. The measures include supporting renewable energy projects that reduce carbon dependency in the energy sector, investing in environmental organisations and in new technology and fuels that will lead to fewer emissions.


Sustainable aviation biofuel can cut airline emissions by up to 80%, but it costs four times as much as normal aviation fuel and is only available at five major airports. Encouraging passengers to stump up the extra for their ticket on a ‘greener’ flight when competition is so fierce remains a big ask.


However – and possibly as a response to its indigenous environmentalist - Scandinavian Airlines aims to power all of its domestic flights -17% of the carrier’s total fuel consumption—with biofuel by 2030. For its international flights, such as the newly launched direct flight from Los Angeles to Copenhagen, the airline took the 11-hour carbon impact –or the Greta effect - into consideration. This year the company will fully upgrade its entire fleet of airplanes to more fuel-efficient models, including the introduction of the Airbus A350 to the Los Angeles market this June, significantly reducing emissions. All that greening up will come at a cost though, and it will be the passenger that pays.


But it seems to be working in countries where national airlines attract indigenous loyalty. Many airlines are now encouraging customers to offset their carbon emissions during the booking process. Since integrating an offsetting functionality into its booking flow system in late 2016, Qantas has evolved from less than 100 carbon-offset bookings a month to more than 15,000. In the past year, customers have partially or fully offset more than 183,600 journeys, a 41% increase from 2018.


In 2019 Hawaiian Airlines, along with nine other members of the Hawai’i Green Growth Sustainability Business Forum, invested in a pilot carbon offset project expected to result in the management of the 8,245-acre Kona Hema forest preserve on Hawaii Island.


There is an awakening within the industry and among passengers that progress on emissions must accelerate faster and, as a significant contributing element in that equation, some airlines are responding with a range of measures that will open the throttle a little wider.