The Reality Of Air Travel, Carbon Emissions And Its Impact On The Environment

Global air travel has exponentially increased over the years as more and more individuals use it as their preferred mode of transportation. Given the amount of time saved and the growing network of connectivity to places all around the globe, it seems to be the most practical mode of transportation for long-distance travel.  The International Air Transport Association (IATA) revealed that present trends in air transport suggest passenger numbers could double to 8.2 billion in 2037.

The numbers are staggering, predictions have continuously estimated that air passengers are only going to increase with time. The environmental impact of air travel has been a major concern for years now, activists and scientists have repeatedly stressed on the fact that the carbon emissions that airplanes release are dangerous for our planet. Air travel is far from sustainable, but the number of people using this mode of transportation has not reduced.

Air travel’s permanent damage to the environment 

According to a study by the International Council on Clean Transportation carbon dioxide emitted by airlines has increased by 32% from 2013 to 2018. The same study estimated that global air travel for passengers and freight emitted 918m tonnes of CO2 last year. The European Commission (part of the EU) states that aviation is one of the fastest-growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions. The direct emissions from aviation account for about 3% of the EU’s total greenhouse gas emissions and more than 2% of global emissions. 

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The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has predicted that airline emissions could grow by 300-700% by the year 2050. The carbon emissions are evidently huge contributors to global warming, accelerating climate change like never before. Kerosene, that is used as fuel for planes releases a huge amount of carbon dioxide. The presence of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will continue to increase temperatures, water supplies will shrink and the climate will continue to worsen, making it incredibly hard for civilizations to exist. 

While the airline industries of most countries contribute to a huge amount of emissions, some do more so than others. Flights from airports in the United States were responsible for almost one-quarter of global passenger flight-related carbon dioxide emissions. Additionally, China was the next biggest source of passenger aviation emissions, followed by the United Kingdom, Japan and Germany. 

Low-cost airlines and booming tourism

The reliance on air travel has only increased over the years. With the introduction of low-cost airlines, air travel has become more affordable than ever. What was once considered a luxury is now a mode of transportation that is accessible to everyone. Because of this accessibility, the number of passengers has increased. The aviation industry is booming, but at what cost? Rising tourism has also contributed to the growth in air travel, directly increasing carbon emissions and making air pollution worse. Emerging markets like India and the Middle East are going to contribute to the growth of the aviation industry. If this growth carries on unchecked, the environmental damage could be catastrophic. 

Are airlines trying to make a difference?

Airlines and their emissions have been discussed for years now, but has there been an impact? If recent reports are to believed, it can be said for certain that the carbon emissions have seen no significant reduction. In 2009, the aviation industry recognized the need to address the global challenge of climate change. They set ambitious targets to reduce CO2 emissions which included 

  • An average improvement in fuel efficiency of 1.5% per year from 2009 to 2020
  • A cap on net aviation CO2 emissions from 2020 (carbon-neutral growth)
  • A reduction in net aviation CO2 emissions of 50% by 2050, relative to 2005 levels

There seems to be a dedicated effort by the aviation industry to make sustainability a priority. According to reports by the IATA, “Airlines have continued to improve their fuel efficiency performance between 2009 and 2016. In 2016, fuel efficiency for total system-wide services (in litres per 100 RTK) stands at 35.28 litres per 100 RTK, an improvement of 10.2% compared to 2009.”

Airlines want to make a move towards being more fuel-efficient and utilizing sustainable alternatives to the current fuel used. However, these measures are mostly taken up on a small scale. A majority of airlines continue to function without making sustainability a major priority, paying mere lip service to it. 

Global efforts to offset airline emissions

International aviation organisations have united to address carbon emissions. In 2016, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) agreed on a resolution for a global market-based measure.  The resolution seeks to ensure the fact that airlines actually monitor their emissions on all international routes and offset emissions for certain routes. 

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Another scheme, The Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation, or CORSIA, “aims to stabilise CO2 emissions at 2020 levels by requiring airlines to offset the growth of their emissions after 2020.” The scheme is estimated to offset around 80% of the emissions above 2020 levels. The ICAO is working towards implementing the right rules and regulations to oversee these schemes and ensure their implementation. The scheme has been framed in such a way so as to allow the aviation industry to grow, while also keeping emissions in check.

 Amish Desai, Chairman of the Karnataka chapter of TAAI (Travel Agents Association of India) says that airlines have been implementing measures to be more eco-friendly and they also release data with regard to the implementation of their measures. However, he is unsure if their measures are sufficient in the long run. 

Carbon offsetting is becoming a norm for certain airlines, who offer customers a chance to offset their carbon emissions by donating to organisations that work towards sustainability. Air France is one of the latest airlines to announce that it will offset 100 percent of the carbon emissions on all of its domestic flights by January 1, 2020. Last year, United Airlines revealed that it was reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2050, compared to its 2005 emissions levels. India has drafted a national green aviation policy to ensure the national aviation market works towards sustainability. 

Is deterring people from taking flights a solution to reduce carbon emissions?

While airlines and international organisations are developing schemes and incorporating sustainability in their agenda, is that enough? The planet has suffered irreparable damage and the carbon emissions are only increasing. In such a scenario, should people take it upon themselves to reduce travelling by air as much as they do? While frequent travellers have chosen carbon offsetting options to ease their conscience, it might not be a permanent fix to the problem of flying. 

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Nagarjun Dwarakanath a former pilot who is presently the aviation correspondent of a news channel says,”It is going to be difficult to completely stop people from flying. A lot of business travellers are frequent fliers because of the nature of their job. Alternative modes of transportation are time-consuming, I’m not sure if it will be feasible. However, the environment needs protection. Technology needs to evolve and new measures need to be developed that can make flying more sustainable.” 

He goes on to add, “Engines need to be made more fuel-efficient and this can be done by using the right kind of materials. Additionally, newer shapes of aircrafts could also help with better functioning engines whose emissions are not as damaging to the environment.”

Will flight-shaming help?

The movement of flight shame or  ‘flygskam’ that originated in Sweden has now become a prominent movement across Europe. The concept of flight shame involves encouraging people to travel by other modes of transportation instead of planes to reduce environmental degradation. In Sweden, the movement actually made a difference with as many as 37% of people revealing that they would now prefer to travel by train as compared to a plane. 

The global air industry still has a lot to worry about. It is essential for frequent fliers to realise the cost of their actions. Alternate modes of transportation need to be seen as a viable option. Aside from this, airlines need to dedicate themselves to sustainability and fuel efficiency. It is not enough to have a single policy that is created and then forgotten about. 

Also Read: Plane Travel Is Bad For The Environment, But Here’s What You Can Do To Help


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