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Is Green Air Travel  Possible?

Air travel: once coined the “biggest carbon sin” by New York Times writer Elisabeth Rosenthal, the most popular form of transport is responsible for emitting particulates and gasses that contribute to climate change and global dimming. Yet despite its destructive side-effects, we rely too much on air travel to scrap it completely, with 3.8 billion passengers a year and 9.9 million people employed within the industry. Thus, we have to ask ourselves the question: could a greener alternative be on the horizon?

The aviation industry is responsible for roughly 2% of global emissions. Although the number seems modest in comparison the 26% emissions contribution from a nation’s average energy supply or the 14% from agriculture, the immense regularity of air travel renders it a major contributor to human carbon emissions. This is particularly true on an individual level – for instance, a roundtrip from New York to San Francisco takes up around 2 metric tonnes of carbon, whilst the average American’s annual carbon footprint is roughly 19 metric tonnes. 

Flickr | Cory Hatchel | AirplaneEco-friendly research and initiatives

Initiatives such as carbon offsetting have become an option for those wishing to counter-act their carbon emissions by paying into a fund that supports eco-friendly schemes that seek to balance out C02 emissions, such as replacing diesel generators or installing wind turbines. Some airlines, such as Delta and United have begun offering passengers to pay into carbon offset funds as part of their air ticket. After calculating how much carbon the individual’s journey will create, the passenger can then pay an additional amount that will remove the amount of carbon their air travel will put out.

A limitation to this is, of course, is that the overall outcome remains merely neutral when one negative action is balanced with a positive one. Furthermore, as long as the numbers of participatory passengers remains at a relatively low level, the overall reach of carbon offsetting stays relatively narrow. If all individual passenger flights were to be continuously supplemented by such a fund payment, the result would likely be negative emissions – a great success. However in reality, it is only a small percentage of passengers who opt to do so for some of their flights. A further worry about carbon offsetting is that it alleviates passengers of feelings of guilt and takes away responsibility from the airline to invest in more sustainable fuel alternatives. Whilst companies such as Boeing have focused their attention on pursuing more eco-friendly energy sources, only strict regulations will be able to make a true impact on the side-effects of air travel.

Flickr | Marc Schieferdecker | Airbus E-FanMuch like many car manufacturers these days, airline companies like Airbus and the aforementioned Boeing have invested in schemes looking to create electric flight vehicles that may one day be able to serve as long-haul passenger planes. In 2014, Airbus premiered its “E-fan”, which cruises at 185 kilometres an hour and can fly for 60 minutes. While of course this project in no way rivals today’s passenger planes, it is still a major development that is working towards becoming a big-scale airliner. Flight companies are working alongside engineers and designers to try and reach the ultimate goal of a hybrid passenger jet, collaborating with the likes of Siemens and NASA in order to create the superconductors needed in order to make the dream a reality.

What can the average traveller do?

Aside from investing in carbon offsetting and waiting for an electric passenger plane to hit the market, another way to reduce your carbon footprint is to look into alternative means of travel. If you’re not in a rush, traveling by train or car can be a cheaper alternative, both for your wallet and in terms of emissions. Using a carbon emissions calculator can help you determine a more eco-friendly alternative – and may even provide you with a greater travel experience by allowing you to engage with your entire journey, not just your destination.  If you definitely need to fly, choosing between airlines and what time of day you will be flying can also make an impact. In terms of fuel efficiency, not all airlines were created equal, and if the flexibility of your travel route allows, choosing a more efficient airline can decrease your environmental impact. Moreover, flying during the day is thought to be less harmful, because the planes contrails reflect sunlight and thereby cause less warming through its emissions. 

By Laura Hallensleben - Online Journalism Intern

Frontier runs conservationdevelopmentteaching and adventure travel projects in over 50 countries worldwide - so join us and explore the world!

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