Thank you for signing up!
Next Flight: Less than Carbon Zero?
Getting on that big-ol’ jet airliner is less of a guilt trip when your share of that jet’s carbon emissions is zero. Ante up for carbon offsets offered by some airlines and travel sites, and you’ll effectively “zero out” your portion of the carbon emissions that result from your flight.
Yet many environmental experts say “zero” is still too much. Air travel is one of the fastest-growing contributors to global warming. So despite airlines' adoption of carbon offset programs that fund solar and wind power farms or plant trees that help remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, environmental groups say airlines need to do more to reduce their carbon emissions in the first place.
“The solution to climate change is not to keep CO2 levels where they are. ‘Zero’ is sitting back and watching the catastrophe,” argues Plane Stupid, a nonprofit organization that monitors aviation’s effect on climate change. “The atmosphere already has 36 percent more CO2 than it would naturally. We need to reduce, and quickly.”
Airlines and airline industry trade groups are taking some measures to reduce their emissions, not just offset them. But is it enough?
Emission-cutting efforts are flying into a headwind
The growth in the number of airline passengers alone — estimated at a 5 to 6 percent increase per year — is working against even the most aggressive emissions-slashing efforts. Over the next 20 years, more than 27,000 new aircraft will be delivered and the number of air passengers will double to well over 4 billion, according to data from aviation consulting firm The Hodgkinson Group.
“The growth in air transport is especially problematic,” says David Hodgkinson of The Hodgkinson Group. “While air travel demand is growing at such unprecedented rates, substantial reductions of aviation greenhouse gas emissions aren’t possible in the short to medium term.”
If you thought the automobile industry was slow to boost fuel efficiency standards, consider that the average aircraft has a 30-year lifespan. That pushes any hope of a complete industry-wide technological shift out 30 to 50 years, says Hodgkinson.
Meanwhile, some airlines are trying reduce their carbon footprint by simply burning less fuel. The International Air Transport Association (IATA), which represents more than 240 airlines, says each kilogram of fuel saved reduces CO2 emissions by 3.16 kilograms.
Who’s doing their share?
American Airlines saves 60 to 70 million gallons of fuel a year through its Fuel Smart program, using methods like shutting off one engine when taxiing to the gate, reducing aircraft weight by removing heavy food service galleys, and attaching aerodynamic devices to the wings of its 737s to help reduce drag.
Continental Airlines has installed fuel-saving “winglets” on its 737s for an emissions reduction of up to 5 percent. The airline has also reduced nitrogen oxide emissions from ground equipment by roughly 75 percent at its Houston hub by switching to electric motor technology.
Arguably the front-runner in airline emissions reduction efforts, Virgin Atlantic has invested in 15 new 787-9 Dreamliners from Boeing — an “environmentally kinder” aircraft that burns 27 percent less fuel per passenger through the use of a lightweight composite material and better engine efficiency. The U.K.-based carrier will also be the first commercial airline to test the use of biofuels through a joint project with Boeing and engine maker GE Aviation, planned for 2008.
Can you take that vacation in 50 years?
The changes some airlines are making sound promising. Yet many industry analysts say the substantial reductions needed are too far away.
“In our view, even the development of alternative jet fuels and aircraft technological developments will only partially offset the growth in aviation emissions,” Hodgkinson says. “In other words, there isn’t enough that airlines can do right now.”
The IATA admits there’s “a gap” between projected air travel demand and what airlines can do to reduce emissions, resulting in a growth of CO2 emissions of around 3 percent a year. “That’s why we’re working hard to close the gap in the future,” says IATA spokesperson Quentin Browell. “In the long term, we have a vision to achieve carbon neutrality and a target of zero carbon emissions in 50 years.”
Fifty years? Not exactly what you want to hear before planning that eco-tour to Fiji … But you can do more than buy carbon offsets when you fly.
5 ways you can do better than zero
1. Think twice about that business trip. One in five American adults travels for business, and the average business traveler takes 5.4 trips each year, according to the Travel Industry Association of America. Encourage your company to promote alternatives like video conferencing, and pledge to cut business travel miles.
2. Don’t just take the train to the plane ... take the train instead of the plane. Hop on Amtrak and your trip will create about half the carbon emissions of the equivalent plane trip — and if you’re jet-setting around Europe, you can cut your emissions footprint by 10 times on super-efficient trains. An L.A. to N.Y. trek by train isn’t practical for most of us — but a D.C. to N.Y. trip might be. Leave earlier and work on the train instead of in the office. Amtrak’s express train takes just 2 hours and 45 minutes to make the 220-mile journey between Washington, D.C. and New York City. No security lines, no early check-in, no carry-on hassles.
3. If you must fly, book a nonstop flight. Takeoffs and landings burn more fuel than cruising.
4. Don’t take the red-eye. According to a 2006 study published in “Nature,” greenhouse gas emissions are twice as harmful at night than during daylight hours due to a difference in the effects of the plane’s contrails.
5. Combine two trips into one. It’s a little like carpooling. If you need to fly for business and you’re also planning to take a vacation, merge the two together and get more bang for your emissions buck. Or if you normally take two one-week vacations, combine them. As the founders of Rough Guides and Lonely Planet travel books now advocate, “Fly less and stay longer.”