The aviation sector, like every big industry, contributes significantly to global pollution. The international aviation sector generates approximately 2% of all human-induced emissions of carbon dioxide, and around 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport. The U.S.-based Center for Biological Diversity says that, without action, global aviation will create around 43 metric gigatons of CO2 through 2050, equating to about 5% of the world’s emissions.
However, recently the things have started to move in the right direction. In 2021 The International Air Transport Association (IATA) approved a resolution to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. In accordance with this new goal, various airlines are seeking ways how to become more sustainable.
Below, we outline some of the main trajectories the whole aviation industry is moving towards green and sustainable future.
Using sustainable aircraft and jet fuels
Aircraft technology has now evolved to the point where sustainable planes have become a reality. Models such as the Dreamliner 787, the A350 XWB and the A321Neo all generate about 25% less emissions than the aircraft that came before them. The Airbus ZEROe is also powered by renewable energy, and is said to truly be a plane without carbon emissions. Several airlines are using these aircraft. Jetstar, for example, is using the Dreamliner 787 for its long-haul flights. They state that the airline operates on 20% less fuel.
More airlines are also now using sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) as part of their everyday operations. SAF is a clean alternative to regular fuel, created from sustainable resources like waste oils and Agri residues. It is not crafted from petroleum like conventional fuel. SAF can also be blended with regular fuel. The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) estimates that up to 8 billion litres per year of SAF production capacity will be a reality in 2032.
Etihad is said to operate one of the world's most sustainable flights using the Boeing 787 Dreamliner (called the 'Greenliner'). The airline reports their operations on an aircraft energised by 38% SAF, despite the environmentally friendly fuel costing four or five more than regular fuel.
Reducing waste from aircraft cabins
Aircraft cabins are wasteful places.The International Air Transport Association (IATA) IATA Cabin Waste Handbook says that, on average, around 352.71kg of waste is generated per flight, with over 20% of this number being untouched food and drink. By 2030, airline passengers are expected to produce 10 million tons of waste – nearly double than what was produced in 2016.
Some players in the aviation industry has already came at the forefront of fight with cabin waste including single-use plastics.
In 2019, Qantas operated the first zero waste flight from Sydney to Adelaide as part of their plan to remove 75% of their waste by the end of 2021. Another airline - Ryanair - announced that they would be plastic free by 2023.
Alaska Airlines, by way of another example, has replaced the plastic water bottles on their flights to plant-based cartons. They've also removed plastic cups to serve water and replaced it with recyclable paper cups. It's estimated that this effort will save approximately 816,000 kilograms of single-use plastics from flight over 2022.
But it’s not only airlines that are saying “no” to single-use plastics. Melbourne Airport, for instance, has committed to becoming completely free of single-use plastics by the end of 2021. As a part of this mission the airport will cease distributing regular plastic items such as cutlery and straws.
As uneaten food and beverages make around 1/5 of the total cabin waste, some airlines are planning to either reinject them into subsequent flights, or donate to those in need.
In 2015, for example, Cathay Pacific donated extra food and beverages from flights to a local food bank known as Feeding Hong Kong. In 2016, around 234 tonnes of food were collected and donated.
Another way to reduce food waste, as per IATA recommendation, is pre-flight food ordering where passengers will be able to order only the food they want by which they will help to reduce the leftovers generated onboard.
Cabin waste and single-use plastic alternatives
When trying to replace single-use plastic from their cabins, airlines oftentimes opt for other types of single-use items including those made out of bioplastic. Japanese airline ANA , for instance, announced in November 2019 that they would change the plastic straws used in their cabins to bioplastic or paper.
However, the strategy where you swap one single-use item for another continue to harm the planet and doesn’t fit into circular economy paradigm. Single-use items made out of bioplastics use precious resource and, similarly to single-use plastics, are used only once before they are discarded. In addition, ‘Biodegradable plastics’ do not really decompose unless they are placed in very high temperatures. Research has also suggested that biodegradable bags are no better for the environment than traditional polyethylene plastic bags.
The majority of the world’s aviation sector have committed to participating in the United Nations’ Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA). This scheme, developed by ICAO and put in place in July 2019, has the objective to cap any increase in carbon emissions by giving airlines the ability to buy carbon offsets.
The scheme is market-based. If an airline buys a carbon offset, they can compensate for emissions produced by lowering emissions elsewhere. It is estimated that the scheme will alleviate approximately 2.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide between 2021 and 2035. Even the UK or USA – two of the world’s largest carbon emitters – have joined CORSIA.
You may be wondering ‘do airlines recycle’? The answer is that some do. There are a number of airlines that recycle by separating recyclable items from regular garbage on an airplane. But the reality is that only a small amount of passenger waste is recycled. According to an IATA spokesperson, most waste is incinerated or landfilled because of quarantine regulations to reduce the risk of animal disease transmission.
As this area in the aviation industry needs a lot of improvement, IATA now recommends a wide range of strategies airline companies can implement. This can include introducing recycling trolley carts which allow for flight attendants to separate waste and recyclables, re-configuring cabin design so that cabin waste can be managed and handled correctly and even encouraging passengers to reduce and recycle their own waste.
Conclusion: the future of sustainable flight solutions
The aviation industry is doing a great deal to become more environmentally friendly, ranging from flying eco-friendly airlines and using sustainable jet fuels, to airports becoming single-use plastic free. The COVID-19 pandemic, and the associated massive reduction in flight activity, led to a 60% reduction in aviation emissions.
But eventually the flights will resume and the world will return back to normal, so the sector will be pressured to make even more efforts in the sustainability domain. Even though clear recommendations are available to those operating in the sector, there are many challenges and roadblocks on the way to make the whole aviation industry more sustainable and green. Similarly to other industries, the real change would be propelled by innovative and out-of-the box thinking and a motivation to create a real impact and become a part of the circular economy.