Sustainable Air Travel : The Story So Far
As the mobility sector marshals its efforts against the effects of climate change, we’ve seen a swath of electric and hybrid vehicles, a renewed interest in electrified mass transit, an increase in ride sharing, the development of apps for intelligent and connected multi-modal travel, but for several reasons, mostly related to the weight constraints that govern all flying vehicles, nothing resembling a zero-emission commercial aircraft… yet.
We’ve all heard the talking points:
- Each year, 3.5 billion of us travel by air. More than 100 000 flights are made all over the world each day.
- If aviation were a country, it would be the world’s seventh largest carbon emitter, just after Germany. To put that in perspective, keep in mind that per passenger, the fuel consumption of an Airbus A380 is less than 3 litres / 100 km.
- As the price of airline tickets dropped, the demand has grown, and is projected to double by 2035.
- 2% of global CO2 emissions are produced by the aviation industry.
The aviation industry has made significant sustainability progress since its creation, and particularly in recent years. Let’s take a look at its three-pronged approach to a sustainable future.
The Three Pillars of Sustainability
Consumers, industry players and technological innovators all have important roles to play in moving aviation toward a sustainable future as quickly as possible.
1- Changes from within
The world of air travel has been working ceaselessly to lower emissions and pollution since its first days. The invention of the turbofan engine in the 1970s contributed to a drastic drop in aircraft fuel consumption, and marked an important milestone in aviation history. The widespread adoption of winglets, on more than 8300 aircraft worldwide, has decreased fuel consumption by up to six percent by reducing drag. It has saved over 20 billion litres of jet fuel and avoided over 56 million tonnes of CO2 emissions since the year 2000, according to the ATAG (Air Transport Action Group).
- Collectively, the major innovations achieved by the air transport sector between 1960 and 2010 have resulted in a fivefold reduction in the consumption of kerosene, and thus CO2 emissions.
What is underway
- Lightweighting, through the use of advanced materials like composites, carbon fibre, and the impending promise of additive manufacturing aka 3D printing, has the potential to save fuel and cut emissions further.
2 – It starts with us
Modern passenger aircraft are highly efficient during the high-altitude cruising portion of their trajectory, so choosing longer, non-stop flights is one way to cut fuel consumption and emissions. Minimizing luggage and choosing low-carbon transport to and from the airport are also options for the sustainability-minded air traveler.
At the risk of sounding like a growth-hating anti-capitalist, one way to reduce aviation’s polluting emissions and move toward greater sustainability is to reduce the overall mileage of short-haul air travel. Air transport excels at high-speed, long-distance transportation of people and high-value, time-sensitive cargo. With the growing electrification of both public transportation and private automobiles, more short-to-medium distance overland trips could be made using terrestrial mobility options like high-speed rail, so that overall emissions from the transport sector decrease over time.