Sustainable air travel: The small steps the world's airlines are taking to help reduce emissions - and what you can do

Welcome aboard. Please place your three kilograms of carry-on under your standing seat or sleeping berth. After take-off, we'll be serving drinks in your reusable water bottles and cups followed by a selection of vegan meals in compostable packaging. And we'll be landing ahead of schedule today, thanks to the fine weather – and our over-wing solar array. Thank you for flying EcoAir.

OK, so EcoAir doesn't actually exist. But it's not beyond the realm of possibility given that airlines are increasingly setting their sights on sustainability.

In terms of environmental impact, the problem with air travel is two-fold: most aircraft still run on fossil fuels and more of us are flying than ever before – 4.5 billion passengers will board commercial flights this year and that's predicted to almost double by 2037, according to the International Air Transport Association.

Worldwide, flights produce about 859 million tonnes of CO2 a year, 2 per cent of global human-made carbon dioxide emissions, which is more significant than it sounds. If aviation were a country, it would be the seventh-largest carbon emitter in the world, above South Korea but under Germany.

But this doesn't necessarily mean we should stop flying, says Dr Matthew Dunn from the University of Sydney's Clean Combustion Laboratory: "If we were to fly as much as we like, and buy carbon offsets, that would be misguided. But not flying at all isn't going to solve the climate change problem either. The reality is that this is a very large problem composed of a multitude of very small problems."

What's needed, he says, is a co-ordinated international effort to develop renewable fuels to reduce aviation emissions.

LESS (FUEL) IS MORE (EFFICIENT)

The good news, Dunn says, is that aviation fuel is expensive, making up a third of most airlines' operating costs which motivates them to reduce fuel consumption – and emissions – to remain competitive.

One way airlines do this is by regularly upgrading their fleets. Today's aircraft burn 80 per cent less fuel per passenger-kilometre than the first jets used in the 1960s. Some, such as the Boeing 787, are even more fuel-efficient than a late model car, using less than three litres per 100 passenger-kilometres. Others, such as the massive A380, have become too fuel-inefficient to meet international emissions targets, which is why Airbus announced in February that the last A380s will roll off the production line in 2021.

The international aviation community has set itself ambitious emissions targets, most notably to reduce net CO2 emissions by 2050, relative to 2005 levels. In 2016 it also adopted a Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA), the first time any industry has agreed to a global market-based measure to address climate change. As of January this year, airlines must monitor and report the carbon emissions from their international flights; in 2021 they'll be required to offset them, too.

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THE BEAUTY OF BIOFUEL

Of course the holy grail of low-impact flight is renewable fuels. "Sustainable aviation fuels" (SAFs or biofuels) can reduce emissions by up to 80 per cent compared to conventional jet fuel. They can now be made from a variety of sources such as algae, used cooking oil, forestry slash, municipal waste, even industrial waste gases and can be used in most standard aircraft engines without any modifications.

Since the first test-flights in 2008, there have been more than 160,000 SAF-fuelled flights, using 10 to 50 per cent SAF blended with jet fuel. Qantas ticked off another sustainable milestone last year: the world's first biofuel flight between the US and Australia. The Dreamliner 787-9 made the 15-hour flight from Los Angeles to Melbourne powered by an SAF derived from a non-edible mustard seed that has other environmental benefits such as improving the health of the soil it's grown in and reducing erosion.

Brisbane airport recently became one of five international airports now regularly supplied with SAF (the others are Oslo, Stockholm, Bergen and Los Angeles), part of a Virgin Australia initiative. And the cost of SAFs is coming down. In November, a Japanese biotech partnered with All Nippon Airways to start mass-producing an SAF from algae and waste oil with the aim of reducing the cost of biofuels from about $120 to $1.20 a litre by 2025.

PLASTIC-FREE FLIGHT

Of course, sustainability is about more than carbon emissions. Taking on board global concerns regarding plastic pollution, Virgin Australia, Qantas, Air New Zealand, Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines and America's three largest airlines (Delta, American and United) recently decided to replace plastic straws, stirrers and other plastic-wrapped items in their aircraft and lounges with paper, bamboo and other renewable or biodegradable alternatives. Delta's pledge alone will save the planet from 170 million plastic straws, 12 million plastic stirrers and 2.7 million plastic-wrapped amenity  kits every year.

Qantas announced in February it will soon phase out paper boarding passes and plastic frequent flyer cards and plans to become the first airline to reuse, recycle and compost at least 75 per cent of its waste by the end of 2021, the most ambitious waste reduction target of any airline in the world.

"In the process of carrying 50 million people each year, we deal with more than 30,000 tonnes of waste. That's the same weight as about eighty 747 jumbos," said Qantas's chief executive Alan Joyce.

In December, the world's first single-use plastic-free flights flew across the Atlantic between Lisbon and Natal in Brazil. It wasn't just a PR stunt for Portuguese airline Hi Fly, which also funds research into the health dangers of plastic and has lobbied the European Parliament to phase out single-use plastics; Hi Fly hopes to be the world's first "plastics-free airline" by the end of this year.

Meanwhile other airlines are getting in on the act. The world's first plastic-free ultra-long-haul flight, Etihad's EY484 from Abu Dhabi, landed in Brisbane on April 22, Earth Day, to raise awareness of the effects of plastic pollution. More than 95 single-use products used on board were removed or replaced with eco-friendly alternatives such as edible coffee cups and lightweight stainless steel cutlery, part of the airline's ongoing commitment to use 80 per cent less plastic across its entire fleet and on the ground by 2022.

OFFSETS AND LIFT OFFS

Then there are carbon offset programs, designed to "neutralise" the emissions from flights; Virgin Australia introduced the world's first government-certified airline offset program in 2007, shortly followed by Delta, Cathay Pacific and Qantas.

Offset programs aren't without their critics, who argue that they do nothing but alleviate frequent-flyer guilt. And only about 10 per cent of passengers fly carbon-neutral, according to Qantas, which has the world's largest airline offset program. On the plus side, they fund renewable energy, conservation and carbon-sequestration projects and as Matthew Dunn says, "At least they're sending a message and it'd be difficult to say the net effect was negative."

In 2017, Qantas partnered with the South Australian government to make Kangaroo Island the airline's first carbon-neutral destination, an industry first; Qantas offsets all its QantasLink flights to and from the island by supporting new tree-planting projects. And in a bid to encourage more carbon-neutral travel, Qantas passengers will soon be able to earn 10 frequent flyer points for every dollar spent offsetting flights out of Australia.

Some airlines boost their sustainability credentials by what they will, and won't, carry, from humanitarian aid (LATAM) to conservation supplies (Air New Zealand). Sixty airlines have now signed the United for Wildlife pledge created by Prince William's The Royal Foundation, to help stop the illegal trade in wildlife.

Last year Virgin quietly stopped serving beef on some flights (Richard Branson gave up meat two years ago) to reduce greenhouse emissions from agriculture and deforestation. Meanwhile Air New Zealand has removed prawns from its in-flight menus until the seafood can be sustainably sourced and serves plant-based Impossible Burgers, developed by Silicon Valley start-up Impossible Foods, in Business Premier class on flights from Los Angeles to Auckland.

Airports are also becoming more sustainable. The global Airport Carbon Accreditation program now has more than 250 member airports, 49 of which are carbon-neutral, including Sunshine Coast Airport, which became Australia's first and only carbon-neutral airport in 2017.

THE FUTURE IS ELECTRIC

More than 100 electric-aircraft projects are underway around the world, including by Airbus and Boeing. Scotland's Loganair is hoping to operate the world's first all-electric routes between the Orkney Islands by 2021 while Norway plans to introduce hybrid-electric planes by 2025 and make all short flights from its airports electric by 2040.

Solar-electric planes are another possibility since the Solar Impulse 2 landed at Abu Dhabi on July 26, 2016, completing the first solar-powered circumnavigation of the world. It had taken just over a year, with 23 days in the air, to fly 40,000 kilometres using just the 17,000 photovoltaic cells on its wings and four lithium batteries to keep its propellers spinning at night.

"It's absolutely beautiful to be up there," said one of the two Swiss pilots, Andre Borschberg, during the launch of a documentary about the historic flight last year. "You look at the wings, you look at the sun above you and you start to understand that just the sun rays falling on the wings are sufficient to make you fly... it gives you faith in this type of technology."

FIVE WAYS TO FLY GREENER

Fly direct

Taking off and landing generate 25 per cent of your flight's emissions so try to limit your stopovers.

Travel light

If you can't go carry-on-only, pack less. "If every Finnair passenger takes one kilogram less we can save 1.2 million kilograms of fuel in a year, enough to fuel 20 flights between Helsinki and Tokyo," says Finnair's regional manager Arnaud Michelin.

Don't fly far

Eighty per cent of aviation's CO2 emissions are generated by flights travelling more than 1500 kilometres; taking short flights will keep your emissions down.

Choose your plane

Smaller, twin-engine aircraft such as Boeing 787 Dreamliners and Airbus A350s are more fuel-efficient than larger four-engine behemoths such as 747s and A380s.

Buy biofuels

Some airlines and airports allow travellers to help fund the development of sustainable aviation fuels. Finnair passengers, for instance, can now buy biofuel, made from used cooking oil, for use on their flights; and Sweden's Fly Green Fund allows you to buy locally produced biofuel for flights to and from Swedish airports. See flygreenfund.se

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