Air Travel Is Getting Cleaner

Reducing Emissions, Increasing Biofuels and Buying Offsets Is Making the Air Industry Greener

For those trying to slash their carbon footprint, one of the most intractable challenges is flying. Air travel accounts for about 2.5 percent of global carbon emissions and is projected to grow by about 5 percent annually during the next decade. Airlines, however, are beginning to make efforts to cut emissions, but thus far, the most common approach is to purchase carbon offsets. The International Air Transport Association is pushing for an average improvement in fuel efficiency of 1.5 percent per year and a goal of net reduction in aviation carbon emissions of 50 percent by 2050, relative to 2005 levels.

The oldest airline, KLM Dutch Royal, which celebrated its centennial birthday this year, is leading the industry in innovation to more sustainable air travel. In 2009, it began developing alternatives to kerosene-type jet fuels and started the first biofuel commercial flight in 2011. Today, it is using 57 times more biofuel per flight than in 2011, cutting its carbon emissions by 85 percent. While most airlines are pursuing offsets, KLM is actually reducing emissions. Because biofuel supply is limited, this Dutch airline is building its own production plant. When completed in 2022, it will be the largest biofuel plant in the world.

Pieter Elbers, KLM’s CEO, claims that until they can solve the fuel problem at the source, they will encourage people to fly less or differently. Their campaign, entitled “Fly Responsibly,” asks whether “you always need to meet face to face”, or “whether you can take the train instead.” Beginning in March this coming year, one daily flight between Amsterdam and Brussels will be replaced by added seats on the high-speed train traveling the same route. Other route substitutes are also being explored.

KLM is partnering with a Dutch university (TU Delft) to develop a more sustainable aircraft design called the Flying-V, an aerodynamic, fuel-efficient concept that would combine passenger travel with cargo hauling. The cargo would be carried in the wings. In addition to this integration, the plane would use 20 percent less fuel. Production is a least 10 years in the future.

Richard Branson of Virgin Atlantic airline has been investing in newer, more fuel-efficient aircraft since 2007, reducing total emissions by 21 percent. Virgin will have the youngest and cleanest fleet in the sky by 2024 with a 25-30 percent reduced fuel burn. For short routes, Branson foresees “completely battery-driven” electric planes being employed in years rather than decades. 

Hopefully, the climate-conscious traveler may still be able to visit the distant corners of the planet in the future without a heavy load of guilt.


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