Reducing the Environmental Impact of your Business Travel
Global air travel is on the rise. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) predicts air passenger numbers will double over the next twenty years; growing from their 2016 level of 3.8 billion to 7.2 billion passengers by 2035.
Yet the industry is already responsible for five percent of global carbon emissions and if aviation were a country it would be the world’s seventh largest carbon emitter.
How Can We Make Air Travel Greener?
With aviation and maritime the two sectors not addressed in the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, the onus is airlines and travellers to minimise their impact. As well as the important environmental driver, there is a financial driver to this innovation; lower fuel consumption will result in higher profit margins for airlines.
British tour operator TUI said in June 2018 that reducing its carbon footprint through new, more efficient green aircraft is the biggest environmental challenge it faces. More than 80 percent of its carbon footprint comes from aircraft, so reducing emissions here will play a major role in helping the company achieve its stated sustainability goals .
Newer fleets offer airlines and operators an obvious way to reduce carbon emissions because of the advances in design and materials over the last fifty years.
These advances include:
* Improvements in engine design; the new turbofan engines are significantly more efficient that earlier models,
* Computer modelling to create more aerodynamic designs, e.g. vertical stabilisers that allow for smaller tail fins,
* New materials to make aircraft lighter, including the carbon fibre laminates that typically now make up more than 50 percent of a passenger jet’s airframe
While these improvements mean the latest aircraft use half as much fuel per mile as did their equivalents fifty years ago, some feel there is little scope left to optimise in terms of design and material.
A Focus on Greener Jet Engine Fuels
Sean Newsum, Boeing’s Director of Environmental Strategy, told National Geographic that “biofuels represent huge potential reductions of between 50 to 80 percent of the lifetime carbon emission of both existing and future aircraft.”
However, the reality is we are still far from achieving anywhere close to this type of reduction. Boeing’s own tests in December 2014 running a 787 Dreamliner on “green diesel” operated with a ratio of biofuel to conventional diesel of 15 percent biofuel to 85 percent traditional.
One of the main issues with using higher ratios of biofuels is their tendency to freeze at typical airline cruising altitudes. The other is current rates of production: today, worldwide biofuel production is around one billion gallons – equivalent to just over one percent of the aviation industry’s current fuel consumption.
Potential Sources of Greener Fuels
Since 2011, more than 2,200 commercial flights have used alternative fuels within their fuel mix. This represents just a small proportion of the 100,000 flights being made each day. But, despite the slow progress, this research is crucial to if the airline industry is to meet its own objectives to achieve carbon-neutral growth by 2020 or reduce emission levels in 2050 to half of those of 2005. Joint research from Manchester Metropolitan University, the University of Sheffield and Missouri University of Science and Technology has shown that by using synthetically produced fuels from feedstocks such as old cooking oil could reduce the particulates from air travel by as much as 60 percent as well as cutting carbon emissions.
While it is likely there won’t be a single answer to the biofuels supply issue, many manufacturers and airlines do have several initiatives underway:
* Lufthansa became the first airline to run scheduled commercial flights powered partly by biofuel with a mix containing sugar-based bio-kerosene back in 2011.
* South African Airways and low-cost carrier Mango worked with Boeing and industrial research company Sunchem to develop oil from a nicotine-free energy tobacco which was used on flights between Johannesburg and Cape Town in 2016.
* Boeing and its Brazilian manufacturer are experimenting with a ten to ninety percent mix of sugar-cane-based biofuel and conventional kerosene.
* After one false start with Green Sky London, British Airways is working on a new initiative to convert the city’s rubbish into sustainable low-carbon jet fuel.
It is hoped that using these new fuels will lead to subsequent opportunities for further improvements to engines or airframe technologies as a result of the changing fuel source.
What Can Passengers Do?
While we wait for these new fuels to gain wider acceptance, air travel passengers can make positive steps to reducing their own impact.
* Budget airlines can be greener since there are more seats packed into the planes – so the average carbon emissions per passenger are reduced.
* Airlines with newer fleets will typically consume less fuel because of the improvements to engines, body weights and aerodynamics of newer aeroplanes.
* Show your support for airlines that are using biofuels by choosing to travel with them over their non-biofuelled rivals.
* Book trips that fly during day-time hours so the warming effect of aeroplane contrails are offset by their reflective qualities – this has been shown to reduce the impact of daytime flying compared to a night-time flight by as much as half.
* Pressure national governments to adopt greener policies around air travel, e.g. a more emissions-optimised approach to air traffic management, and more streamlined approaches to biofuel testing and approval procedures.
* Use a recognised carbon off-setting programme to offset your own carbon emissions from flying. This doesn’t have to be expensive; the price of carbon offsetting can often be less than the price of a piece of checked-in luggage – giving you another reason to pack light !
It may be that air travel may never be “green”, but there are still choices we can make to reduce its impact.
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