The teenage environmental activist Greta Thunberg garnered a lot of attention when she chose to sail rather than fly across the Atlantic Ocean to attend a global climate conference in 2019. Thunberg’s trip was successful in calling attention to the reality that the airline transportation industry is not carbon neutral.
Because of the vast dependence of the global economy on jet flights, it is not feasible simply to resort to catamarans for global commerce. Still, virtually everyone in the airline industry recognizes the gravity of these environmental issues. Fortunately, some steps are already being taken and several other simple, viable ideas have been suggested to make commercial flight environmentally sustainable.
Perhaps you have not yet heard of the CORSIA agreement. It is actually an acronym for the “Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation.” In 2019, the 191 member nations of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) adopted this agreement. It is a commitment by which these nations intend to cap the global carbon emissions of jet aircraft at 2020 rates. By 2027, this limit will become mandatory. However, 73 ICAO member nations—which together account for three-quarters of all airline carbon emissions, have already voluntarily agreed to achieve these ambitious goals. In this regard, the airline industry is the first global industrial sector to agree upon such standards.
If you were on the plane, you probably did not realize it, however, in 2019 US Airlines launched an eco-friendly commercial flight from Chicago to Los Angeles using a low-carbon biofuel. Because biofuels are currently more expensive to refine than traditional jet fuel, airlines have not found it profitable to switch to them. Work is ongoing, however, to take biological sources such as forest waste, agricultural byproducts and urban solid waste and transform them into sustainable aviation fuel. A variety of different blends of biofuel and traditional jet fuel are being studied both in regard to how jets perform while using them and what environmental impact they may have. Hybrid and totally electric aircraft are being considered for local and feeder routes.
Not surprisingly, the airline industry utilizes a lot of single-use plastics. From that cup the flight attendant uses for your complimentary drink to the food containers to the plasticware to the headphone and blanket wraps, lots of plastic is used just once and discarded. Qantas Airlines is on top of this as they have begun replacing plastic glasses with refillable water bottles. Another virtue of banishing all forms of single-use plastic would be in making all passengers aware of just how much these compounds pervade the typical American lifestyle.
As long as they are getting rid of plastic, why not paper? There is already a movement away from paper tickets and boarding passes toward digital screenshots. It has become more feasible for airlines to provide individual screens so that passengers can shop, read articles and flight information on their own personal devices or on seatbacks. This is a beneficial development in that all those inflight magazines, brochures and placards can weigh over 400 pounds. KLM Airlines reported saving more than three-quarters of million pounds of paper a year when they shifted reading material from paper to a smartphone reading app. Making this change will be advantageous to forests and landfills alike.
Finally, perhaps the most eco-friendly change airlines can make may be in teaching their passengers about the importance and practicality of sustainable practices. Rather than simply forcing passengers to cram all their belongings into overhead bins, airlines might make a concerted effort to explain the environmental benefits of traveling lighter, using recyclable materials on excursions and planning ecotourist vacations. Simple actions, like lowering window shades while waiting to take off or disembark can make an important difference.
The simple, greatest lesson the airlines can share with their customers is by demonstrating a commitment to a greatly diminished carbon footprint.
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