The climate emergency: aviation’s greatest threat or opportunity?

Yesterday’s eruption of the Philippines’ Taal volcano has forced thousands to flee their homes, bringing air traffic in the region to a complete standstill. Echoing the 2010 Icelandic ash cloud that stranded five million passengers, a kilometer-high ash cloud has disrupted multiple domestic and international flights. As nature brutally and beautifully reminds us of its power and unpredictability, the aviation industry is once again forced to confront the reality of its effect on the environment.

Last week JetBlue announced it will go completely carbon neutral on its domestic US flights, whilst Qantas has committed to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. With increasing pressure to make strides towards sustainability, airlines are under more scrutiny than ever. With 60pc of British adults saying emission reductions ought to be an industry priority, carriers are scrambling to turn the tide on their perceptions as mass polluters.

From existing measures such as the use of more fuel-efficient aircraft and biofuels, to grand pledges of completely decarbonating operations, carriers are no longer competing solely on the variables of cost and convenience. In an industry contributing two to three percent of global emissions, making the effort to be seen as environmentally responsible has become a critical component in airlines’ strategies. The token corporate social responsibility and greenwashing schemes of yesterday are no longer enough to keep mounting criticism at bay.

Sustainable aviation fuels are one tried and tested solution leading the charge on reducing carbon outputs. From Virgin Atlantic’s pioneering flight in 2008 powered partly by fuel from Brazilian nuts and Philippine coconuts], 100,000 such flights had operated worldwide by 2018. Containing no palm oil nor causing deforestation, these fuels can be made from almost anything including domestic waste. Despite producing only one fifth of the CO2 of conventional jet fuel, demand currently outstrips supply, with the International Air Transport Authority urging governments to incentivize their wider use.

With airlines rolling out newer and more fuel-efficient aircraft, the interim measure of carbon offsetting is becoming an increasingly prevalent trend. Delta Airlines is engaged in tree-planting projects in Kenya and Uganda. KLM is placing the environmental onus on its customers via WhatsApp invites requesting donations for an afforestation project in Panama, whilst easyJet’s planting projects form a segment of its estimated £25 million spend on sustainability this year.

easyJet’s announcement to operate the shortest mainland UK air link between Birmingham and Edinburgh has drawn criticism from the likes of Greenpeace, whereas KLM has opted to axe one of its daily flights between Brussels and Amsterdam, partnering with rail providers Thalys and NS Dutch Railways, citing their ongoing support for a switch towards less polluting ground transport modes.

Beyond aircraft, air traffic management and fuel efficiencies, initiatives for greater sustainability are also manifesting in airlines’ onboard offerings, including Air New Zealand’s edible cups and Icelandair’s cornstarch-based biodegradable amenity kit components. Scandinavian Airlines has introduced new food packaging aimed at axing 51 tons of plastic waste per year. Meanwhile Air France plans to eradicate single-use plastics like cups and cutlery which it claims will save 1,300 tonnes of plastic annually.

With 2.6 billion passengers and 41pc of goods travelling by air each year, the air transport sector accounts for up to eight percent of world GDP. The economic and societal benefits of air transport must be weighed up against its depletion of finite resources, impact on climate change and associated health impacts. As increasingly conscious consumers develop dimmer views of eco recklessness, short-term measures including afforestation to deliver carbon reductions, alongside longer-term plans to support new technology development such as electric planes, is the double-pronged approach airlines will need to win hearts, minds and bottom lines.

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