The sky’s the limit: air travel and climate change

WRITTEN BY Meg O' Doherty

August 29, 2022

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The sky’s the limit: air travel and climate change

by | Aug 29, 2022 | Sustainability

Meg O' Doherty

29 Aug, 2022

July and August have seen record high temperatures hit Ireland accompanied by extreme weather events ranging from wildfires in Wicklow to floods in Derry. Similar scenes are evident throughout Europe and beyond, demonstrating some of the worrying impacts of climate change in real time. While in Ireland we are quick to welcome any ray of sunshine we get, there are underlying tones of anxiety looming in the background – with some social media users taking the opportunity to highlight the dangers associated with climate change and such uncharacteristic weather conditions.

At the same time, Kylie Jenner flaunted not one – but two private jets belonging to her and her partner Travis Scott via her Instagram. Jenner has received backlash for choosing to take short journeys – including one 17 minute journey that didn’t leave the boundaries of the state of California and would have taken 40 minutes by car, emitting a ton of carbon dioxide – via private jet that could easily be travelled by car. Private jets are between 5 and 14 times more polluting than commercial planes. Jenner is not alone in her flying habits. More recently Taylor Swift has become the subject of many sarcastic Tiktok videos ridiculing her overuse of private jets and the unnecessary CO2 emissions associated with her daily commutes.

The uproar has us thinking about the aviation industry more generally and what it is doing to reduce its impact on the environment, with commercial flying accounting for around 3% of global carbon emissions – a figure expected to increase with more and more people opting to travel via the sky. Below we’ve taken a look at a few well known commercial airlines in operation, including some top sustainability performers that air-Jenner and air-Swift could look to for inspiration.

Ryanair – as Europe’s largest airline, Ryanair is something of a household name, offering budget-friendly flights and sometimes questionable customer service. On the surface, Ryanair’s main environmentally friendly actions come in the form of allowing customers to offset the emissions of their flights at an additional cost. But what is the airline doing to take the onus off their customers? One cause for celebration is that Ryanair has one of the youngest and most fuel-efficient fleets in the world. In addition, in 2021 it was announced that Ryanair partnered with Trinity College Dublin in the launch of Ireland’s first Sustainable Aviation Research Centre by donating €1.5m to fund research into Sustainable Aviation Fuels, Zero Carbon Aircraft Propulsion Systems and Noise Mapping. Ryanair estimates that a large proportion of its decarbonisation efforts will be met through the increased use of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), and aims to operate 12.5% of its flights with SAF by 2030. The airline has placed a clear focus on research and innovation, which we hope will lead to low-emissions flights that don’t cost the customer.

Scandinavian Airline (SAS) – SAS have a history of sustainability within their business, and were involved in the formation of the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users group in 2008, which ‘was charged with expediting the development of new jet fuels that are sustainable in the long-term from renewable sources’. The airline has also allowed customers to prioritise sustainability by offering biofuel (a type of SAF) upgrades on their flights since 2019, and automatically offsetting the emissions of youth travellers. Building on these efforts, SAS has a target in place to ensure that all of its domestic flights within Scandinavia will be powered by biofuel by 2030. As for their current decarbonisation efforts, SAS spent 2022 replacing older models of aircrafts and putting emphasis on having the right size aircraft for each flight to avoid generating unnecessary emissions. Whether we like it or not, flying can cause detriment to the environment and it is refreshing to see that SAS doesn’t shy away from this fact, as the airline offers a Flight Emissions Calculator on their website. Having access to this information can help customers to understand the impact of their journey and inform their travels moving forward.

KLM – the Dutch airline is a best-in-class example of sustainability within the commercial aviation sphere, having ranked within the top 3 in its industry in the respected Dow Jones Sustainability Index for 15 consecutive years. Like its competitors, SAF is a key consideration of KLM in its sustainability efforts and currently incorporates SAF into all its flights. KLM has a goal to become net zero by 2050, which will be supported by their plans to introduce electric and hydrogen powered aircraft to its fleet by 2035. The airline contributes to nature-based solutions to fight climate change by supporting reforestation efforts in Panama and inviting customers to do the same. Like SAS, KLM doesn’t shy away from the impact of their business on the environment, even going as far as using their website to highlight that travelling from Amsterdam to Brussels takes longer by plane than train, alongside emitting more CO2 – try telling that to Kylie, eh?

It goes without saying – planes are one of the most harmful methods of travelling in terms of its environmental impact, and we would encourage readers to consider alternative options such as trains, boats and cars. But at the end of the day, flying can offer amazing benefits by connecting the world, assisting tourism and supporting economic growth. Seeing the work being done by some of the aviation industry’s top players leaves us feeling hopeful that sustainability and travel can go hand in hand, and that the responsibility to fight climate change will not rest solely on the shoulders of individual customers, but on the industry as a whole.

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