Why You Should Care About Sustainable Flight, Even If You Don’t Fly

Because flight shame isn’t enough to fix the problem, and it’s not going to make air travel go away.

Photo by Ryan Zhao on Unsplash

Instead of telling you that aviation is a primary climate transgressor and that a hurt climate hurts everyone, I’ll give you some brief, practical answers to some questions I myself — a relatively uninformed, frugal, more couch-sitter than jet-setter, grad student — had about this issue of unsustainable flight when I was first introduced the problem. And assuming that you do care for the environment and like myself you fall somewhere on the climate conscious spectrum between the deniers and Greta Thunberg, this can hopefully provoke some flight-shame-free thought on the issue.

If we’re talking about unsustainable transportation, aren’t cars the real problem? Like most everyone, I drive much more than I fly. Since cars are the source of 16% global carbon emissions compared to airplanes meager 2.5% shouldn’t we be focusing on the biggest slice of the emissions pie?

Transportation is the number one source of carbon emissions in the U.S. at 29%. Though cars make up the largest portion of that percentage, in comparison to passenger vehicles and even energy — the U.S.’s second largest emissions sector — aviation is the only one projected to trend upward in emissions due to increased air travel demand outpacing effective regulations and sustainable solutions.

“While other sectors are being radically overhauled, there’s little sign of change from aviation …”

The World Wildlife Foundation asserts that

“Unregulated carbon pollution from aviation is the fastest-growing source of the greenhouse gas emissions driving global climate change. In fact, if the entire aviation sector were a country, it would be one of the top 10 carbon-polluting nations on the planet.”

But to make it more personal, if you’re an average American transportation is also the number one contributor to your carbon footprint with short, domestic flights topping your list of carbon emissions per kilometer travelled.

This is a big deal. This is not to say stop flying. Even if we were to ground all planes now and forever that only eliminates 2.5% of global emissions. This is to say we need to start caring about how we can change the future of air travel and critically consider the problem at hand before it gets beyond our grasp. Because at our current pace, the global impact of airplane travel in the next few decades is projected to more than double in terms of annual air travelers and triple in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.

I know individual choices direct the market, but practical and affordable options for sustainable flight just aren’t here yet. At this point, shouldn’t the onus be on policymakers?

It is most certainly a policy problem. Airplane CO2 emissions have been unregulated since their creation even while other forms of transportation have been subject to restrictions. It wasn’t until 2016 that the first emission restrictions were negotiated by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in a scheme called CORSIA, short for Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation, with the goal of making international flight growth — which makes up ~1.3% of global CO2 emissions — “carbon neutral” post 2020 (a lot more on that here and here.)

First, let’s just acknowledge that the ICAO’s official purpose is

“To ensure the safe and orderly growth of international civil aviation.”

Now let’s take a glimpse at the problems with their plan, including but not limited to: the voluntary 6 year phase that begins in 2021, the use of and lack of criteria for carbon offsets (a.k.a permission to pollute indefinitely by paying to just shift the onus of emission reduction to a different sector, in a manner similar to that of the failed 1997 Kyoto Protocol), and the proximity of ICAO to the aviation industry it is meant to regulate — all amounting to an utterly opaque and empty proposition. So before you go purchasing that carbon offset plane ticket know that it’s not much more than a ticket subsidizing the “guilt-free” growth of carbon emissions, because companies have more money to burn through than there is climate to save, and diverting sustainability efforts away from primary sources like fuel is not a long term solution. In short, we can’t rely on policymakers to develop standards that prioritize sustainability over profitability.

So policy isn’t the answer, then what is? I know the answer certainly isn’t me, so why care about something that I hardly contribute to and I couldn’t help even if I tried?

Alright, so maybe you’re a bit like me and your ability to care about a problem is subconsciously dependent on your own ability to solve it and/or see a viable solution. Well in this case, the former is silly because I certainly won’t be the one to solve sustainable flight and likely neither will you, but we can work with the latter. The first step to seeing a solution is of course identifying the correct problem. As Steve Jobs put it:

“If you define the problem correctly, you almost have the solution.”

There are plenty of issues with the status quo of the political and technical machinery of aviation. There are also plenty of simple measures that can be taken right now to improve on the latter, like reduction of fuel consumption and use of sustainable materials as well as optimizing routes and engine designs for efficiency, but again, there is little regulatory pressure to do so. Above all, there is a ceiling that exists for reduction methods that new technical innovations could break through. Because even the lightest, most fossil fuel-efficient aircrafts emit.

So, let’s zoom out for a moment and consider the problem at the core of unsustainable flight — clean energy storage. While there is debate whether biofuels or electrons will ring in the new era of aviation, it’s clear that innovative ideas and technological advances are what it will take to get us there. In case you didn’t know — biofuels are carbon-based fuels made from biomass (plants and various waste) that are processed into a liquid form. Biofuels currently account for less than a fraction of a percentage of the world’s total jet fuel, yet have been utilized in the planes since 2008. So what’s the hold up? The usual culprits: technology, time, and money. It’s quite the challenge to scale up the production of liquid biofuels to satisfy any appreciable amount of the world’s fuel demand and this intrinsically makes it a risky investment, which severely impedes its commercial implementation. And I think there’s something to be said about the fact that cars have gone electric rather than biofuel-ed.

It seems it will primarily be the job of new battery chemistries to expel fossil fuels from the aviation market and create truly sustainable flight. While going electric has its own share of problems — battery size perhaps being the biggest challenge — this moment in history requires investment in the creative solutions coming into existence because current ways to cut airplane emissions aren’t cutting it in the least.


how are we going to reach our destination?

Ampaire: highest capacity electric airplane to take flight

Not to tie major airlines’ hands for them, but the current demand for travel does make it tougher to manufacture a supply that both satiates demand and safeguards the environment. As a result of the democratization of flight, plane tickets have become aggressively cheap at the environment’s expense. To meet the growing demand led by the upsurge of the American middle class traveler and the huge market boom in China and India, the aviation duopoly, Boeing and Airbus, will continue to pump out currently in-production, fuel guzzling, commercial plane models, likely by the tens of thousands over the next 20 years. The average lifetime of a commercial airplane is 35 years. That means that production of unsustainable models today will be polluting our skies for the next 35 years.

Though lower fuel consumption means higher profit margins for airlines, that comes at a technological investment and time expense that they can’t afford against the current plane passenger growth rate and absence of regulation to override the cost.

So, this makes it the little (wo)man’s problem — the individuals and the investors — and sustainably-focused startups the solution. But that’s a good thing because in our increasingly climate conscious world, the demand for sustainable products is already here and the technology isn’t too far behind. Which means we have the leverage we need to tilt aviation towards sustainability without policy. But don’t take my word for it, see for yourself. Check out these prominent electric aviation manufacturing companies committed to adding only sustainable options to the market and all that’s in store for the near future of batteries.


where are we really?

First, I think it’s important to take a look at the journey thus far. The automotive and aviation industries share similar sustainability struggles. It may seem like comparing apples to oranges, but the two industries have quite a bit in common, the technology that puts each into motion being a principal commonality.

The race to electric: CARS VS PLANES VS POLICY

It took 22 years for the modern car to become reminiscent of the cars we drive today; 89 years for the first mass-produced car to become the first mass-produced hybrid electric vehicle; 66 years for the Wright brothers’ gasoline-powered biplane to evolve into the jet fuel-powered, commercial planes that fill our skies today; and 50 years for that commercial plane to become the first electric plane to take to the skies. It would appear we’re working with a decades-based timescale to get electric power to the forefront of the aviation sector. This timescale may seem scary in an era of climate urgency and anxiety in which:

“We are the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and the last to be able to do anything about it.” -Barack Obama

But to assuage any fear about time, the aviation startup industry has already surmounted arguably the toughest barrier standing in its way — the certification requirements for initial deployment — and taken to the skies nonetheless. Spencer Gore, founder and CEO of Impossible Airspace says,

“The aircraft that need to be flying 30 years from now need to be in development today.”

And this is happening thanks to the creative problem solvers and scientists working to revolutionize clean energy storage for planes. Policy, which lags far behind the pace of innovation, is not the principal driving force for sustainable transportation, but rather science and technology that pushes the limits of the unknown and undoable and will be the key to fully mitigating aviation’s environmental impact.

So, who should care, you ask?

In short, everyone, because creative solutions that you can support are entering the market. Support it even if you don’t fly, can’t afford to fly, or feel you don’t fly frequently enough to matter.

And why?

Because unraveling before us is new paradigm of product development wherein companies begin to consider emissions over commissions and victories in clean energy storage have the power to transform every economic sector. The airplane is the impetus driving this energy revolution and in the race towards green solutions it is ‘an emblem of things to come’.

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