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Sustainable Travel: Aviation

Travel is a privilege, and as such it comes with responsibilities to tread as lightly as possible. We’re always looking for ways to reduce the environmental footprint of our travel by using trains, public transportation, or electric vehicles; by choosing eco-friendly hotels and refusing daily maid service; and choosing local, sustainably-grown food. When we have a choice, we travel to destinations that are paragons of environmental friendliness.

Despite these efforts, we’re told that all of those choices can be swamped with carbon by just stepping onto an airplane. Using the carbon footprint calculator at TerraPass, a carbon offsets firm, I’m told that one roundtrip ticket between Portland, OR, and Zürich, Switzerland, a trip I take regularly for shooting episodes of our popular PBS television shows, creates nearly 2 tons of carbon, or about an eighth of the annual carbon footprint of the average American. Houston, we have a problem.

Current options for consumers to shrink their carbon footprint from flying are limited to reducing or eliminating flights or purchasing carbon offsets (which is what our production crew does for our trips to Europe, using MyClimate). The former, while effective, would threaten the $700B tourism industry and those whose livelihoods depend on it, while the latter is, at best, a patch that has been rightly criticized for its misuse by industry. Not to mention that travel has more important, albeit tangential, effects that would be missed; primarily the opening of minds and broadening of horizons that promotes tolerance and understanding.

It may seem an intractable problem, but for more than a decade now alarm bells have been ringing and it seems the aviation industry has taken notice. Substantial progress has been made in reducing current carbon emissions as compared with 30 years ago through a combination of technological and organizational efficiencies. More promising, as reported by the World Economic Forum, is a commitment by the aviation industry to become carbon-neutral by 2050, an ambitious goal that will require a combination of ramping up current efficiencies as well as introducing new technologies like hydrogen fuel cells and electric flight, AI-aided flight schedules and paths, and the production and use of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF).

According to an industry booster group, the aviation industry as a whole has cut the use of fuel per flight by 50% compared with flights in 1990 through technological advancements in the design of engines and planes themselves as well as operational improvements such as optimization of flight paths and schedules to avoid planes circling airports while they await a landing spot.

So far, so good, but it’s a long way from where we stand now to the lofty goal of net-zero flying. While there are new efficiencies to be eked out of current technologies, major airplane manufacturers Boeing and Airbus have taken distinctly different approaches to the zero-carbon goal. Airbus has staked its claim on hydrogen fuel cell engines, which would use hydrogen produced from renewable energy sources like solar and wind to create green hydrogen, which would then be used in the fuel cells to power electric-drive engines. This neither creates carbon in the production of fuel nor when it’s burned. Boeing’s approach would rely on drop-in SAFs made from either biological waste or CO₂ that has been collected through direct air capture (DAC) projects like those being developed by ClimeWorks. Carbon is removed from the atmosphere in the making of SAFs and then returned to the atmosphere when burned in a traditional jet engine, making the entire process net zero.

Both approaches are a stretch, requiring billions of dollars of investment in research and development and decades to implement, but both industry and governments seem committed to this course. Last October, the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization, a group of 184 nations, agreed to a long-term aspirational goal (LTAG) of net-zero carbon by 2050. While the LTAG is, by definition, aspirational and not binding, the goal does set a standard by which nations that profess sustainability will be judged going forward. It is expected to motivate governments to incentivize research and development of zero-carbon technologies and ideas, releasing a torrent of financial and regulatory support to accelerate industry efforts.

As much as we would like to be flying guilt-free, nothing happens overnight. The 2050 goal is unlikely to be met before that date. For now, our options are limited to the reduce-and-offset strategy I mentioned earlier, but tools for conscientious travelers keep getting better. On a recent search for flights on SkyScanner, some options were labeled “This flight emits XX% less CO₂ than a typical flight on this route,” with reductions ranging from 14% to 20%. Also, direct flights are nearly always greener than those with stops. Why not choose a less carbon-intense route? And while carbon offsets have been criticized as greenwashing due to their abuse by big business and industry, we can choose reputable, third-party audited companies like TerraPass and MyClimate, to reliably offset flights. Go a step further through ClimeWorks, which will remove carbon from the atmosphere through DAC and securely sequester it underground or use it to make SAFs.

All of this talk of sustainability has made me thirsty. Air Company is one of the innovators creating SAFs from captured carbon, but they’re also dabbling in more immediately pleasurable applications of the technology. I recommend a light and satisfying Air Vodka and tonic, a drinkable alcohol made from captured carbon. Oh, the sacrifices I make for the environment.

How do you make your travel more sustainable? Let us know in the comments below and subscribe to our monthly email newsletter so you don’t miss a thing. We’ll be featuring more sustainable travel tips in future Sustainability Series articles.


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